Pulaski County election officials for months have been aware of a gaping hole in voting procedures that could be exploited for fraud, but they kept silent until the elections were complete, hoping no one would take advantage of it.
Now they are calling on the state legislature to fix the problem.
According to Kent Walker, a member of the Pulaski County Election Commission, updated lists of people who have already voted are printed on the Friday before election day in order to allow time for distribution to individual precincts. As a result, the lists do not include people who might have voted on the Saturday and Monday before election day. In theory, it would be possible for those people to vote again in their precincts on election day.
“So many people are taking advantage of early voting that in Pulaski County alone, approximately 4,000 people voted on the Saturday and Monday preceding election day,” Walker said. “Those people are not checked off as having voted on Tuesday because the precinct rolls have already been printed.” He says one poll worker told him she had early voted but noticed her name was not checked off on the precinct list as having already voted.
Crittenden County Deputy Clerk Anita Griffin confirmed one case of repeat voting this year that occurred because of the early voting recording lapse. She said a man had cast his ballot at the beginning of the early voting period and returned to vote again on the day before election day.
“He had brought his wife up to vote,” Griffin said. “He had just forgotten that he had already voted. On the Monday before the election, we don’t have the books, because we take them to the polls on Monday morning.”
The vulnerability can affect election results. Votes are often certified before instances of double voting are detected.
“The preliminary certification is due the Friday after the Tuesday election, and votes are certified 10 days after the election,” Walker said. “Five elections in Pulaski County in the last year were decided by seven votes or less, and that doesn’t include runoff spots, where the second- and third-place finishers decide who makes the runoff. Approximately 34,500 people early vote, so we would have to do an audit of 34,500 ballots to see if someone voted twice on Tuesday.”
Pulaski County hasn’t audited its rolls to see if any double voting occurred.
Casting multiple votes in the same election is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and/or jail time, but Walker believes some people might be willing to take that risk.
“We can’t prevent it on the front end,” Walker said, “so someone could ask themselves, ‘Am I going to get caught? Is getting a fine worth getting someone I want into office?’ … I’m not a prosecutor, but based on the current prison situation in Pulaski County, it’s unlikely that a voter fraud issue would involve incarceration.”
To solve the problem, the election commission will recommend eliminating early voting on the Saturday and Monday before Election Day. Since early voting is regulated by state law, only the state legislature has the power to make that change, which accounts for the commission’s silence on the issue until now.
“We had to wait until the upcoming legislative session,” Walker said. “We discovered the flaw in the summertime, after the primary. I would say, to some degree, I didn’t want anyone to exploit it. If I were to come out in the summer time and say, ‘We have a systemic flaw in our election procedure that you can exploit,’ people would do it, even if they were prosecuted afterward.”
The election commission convened Wednesday to discuss its recommendations with the 23 state legislators who represent portions of Pulaski County, and Walker was scheduled to testify Thursday before a joint meeting of the House and Senate state agencies committees, which will consider the issue.
Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, whose office oversees elections in Arkansas, is not taking a position on the procedure change. “Secretary Daniels wants to have more time to visit with the county clerks before making a decision on whether to support or oppose the measure,” said his spokesperson, Natasha Naragon.
The Arkansas Association of County Clerks also is staying neutral, according to its president, Faron Ledbetter.
“We’re mixed on it,” said Ledbetter, who is the Madison County clerk. “We know early voting is very popular with people, but [the change] would help put more accurate poll books out. The one thing that we do want is to make sure we don’t end up with more absentee voters. We’re not opposed to doing away with early voting on Monday if everyone thinks that will strengthen election process, but we don’t want to be flooded on Monday with people who want to vote absentee because they can’t early vote.”
“Every state that borders Arkansas has already changed this,” Walker said. “They realized there is an amount of paperwork and coordination with clerks and committees that has to take place that makes for accurate and fair elections. I’m a big proponent of early voting. I just don’t want it to be done in way that skews the outcome of the election just to get one more day of early voting in.”
“Why have a flaw in the system, hoping no one will exploit it, when it’s easily correctable?” Walker asked.