Columns » Max Brantley

The big news on election day in Arkansas

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Arkansas held primary and judicial elections Tuesday, May 20, and none of the major media got the biggest news right.

It wasn't the predictable Democratic and gubernatorial nominees, Mike Ross and Asa Hutchinson. The big news:

VOTERS STAYED AWAY IN DROVES: The turnout was only about 20 percent of registered voters, which is even worse than it sounds because thousands of eligible voters are unregistered.

More Republican votes were cast than Democratic votes. But despite numerous hotly contested races from the top to the bottom of the ticket, Republican turnout wasn't that much bigger than the Democratic vote in a primary with no significant race. Ross and Hutchinson got about the same number of votes.

It's not coincidental that low turnout comes as Republicans claim a majority in Arkansas politics. Republicans have risen to power by demeaning government and trashing those who serve in it. They have convinced many voters that it doesn't matter who gets elected.

The result: primary elections by diehards. Their numbers were about equal, particularly when you consider the Democrats who crossed over to do mischief in the GOP primary.

More will vote in November. But who? I'd guess the new voters will be roughly split between old-line populist-leaning voters and the rising tide of I Want Mine voters. Some big races — U.S. Senate and governor — could produce departure from the expected dogmatic responses because of moderate Democratic candidates who'll dodge the hot-button issues so beloved of Republicans. But first we'll have to endure $10 million or more in dishonest advertising, much of it from secret interests.

THE VOTER ID LAW WORKED: The Republican Party Voter ID legislation took effect and it couldn't have worked better. Thousands of voters were not allowed to cast legal ballots because they didn't produce the required ID. In St. Francis County, 80 percent of the absentee ballots were ruled ineligible. This hit elderly poor and minorities hard.

Problems ran deeper than absentee ballots and most of the media missed the story. State law clearly says that the newly required photo ID is only to be used to check the name and face of the person attempting to vote. But clerks all across Arkansas seized the IDs and did pop quizzes. If the address on an ID didn't match the voter rolls, voters were denied a ballot. This is illegal. In an untold number of cases, voters were not given the legally mandated provisional ballot when questions arose so that election commission could resolve disputes later.

The secretary of state had spent little to educate voters on the new law. After the chaos, the state Board of Election Commissioners, led by that selfsame Republican secretary of state, gave little indication of concern. Many county clerks passed the buck. The Pulaski County Election Commission was a welcome departure. It went so far as to notify people who'd been disqualified, in hopes they get it right next time.

The ACLU, which is suing over the patently unconstitutional voter ID law, has complained to anyone who'll listen.

But the new law DID suppress Democratic voters, just as Republicans have hoped. It was an implementation marked by subjectivity, widespread confusion and vastly different practices from county to county.

Faced with far less confusion over letting two women marry, the Arkansas Supreme Court stayed a ruling against that unconstitutional law. But the results-oriented, Republican-fearful Supreme Court has had no problem allowing the Voter ID law to take effect despite a court ruling that IT was unconstitutional.

We also elected more judges Tuesday. Dark money and blood-sucking nursing homes influenced several important races. That was another missing headline.

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