The messiness and challenges of democracy remain on full display at the Pulaski County Election Commission, where vote totals are still incomplete and the staff just discovered that roughly 300 rejected ballots were mistakenly added to the count.
A box of rejected absentee ballots got counted Tuesday, mixed in with hundreds of other ballots cleared for the counting machine. Missing signatures, mismatched birth dates and lack of a photocopied ID are among the many reasons absentee ballots can land in the reject pile.
Because those rejected ballots that were mistakenly counted are no longer connected to their voters’ names in any way, it would be impossible at this point to cull those votes from the total, Pulaski County Election Director Bryan Poe said.
Camille Bennett, voter protection director with For AR People, said she’s examining the data. “We have a list that includes these 300 unproperly counted ballots and we’re in the process of identifying which races could have been affected by these counts.”
With the heavy workload and new systems being put into place for the 2020 election, perhaps it’s not surprising that ballots landed in the wrong stacks.
Over the past week, a collection of poll watchers observed as poll workers, full-time election office staff and the appointed 3-person Election Commission labored to push their way through a record number of absentee ballots. This election, shaped as it was by a global pandemic, laid bare the persnickety and time-consuming nature of Arkansas’s absentee ballot process. Plenty of voters who painstakingly applied for ballots, filled them out and returned them will ultimately not have their votes counted because of a misplaced signature, a missing photocopy or other incorrect paperwork.
While it’s disappointing for those voters who go uncounted, Election Commissioner Joshua Ang Price said that of the 25,050 absentee ballots in Pulaski County, 23,417 earned approval. That’s a 93.5 percent acceptance rate. But because a much larger number of people voted from home, the number of disqualified ballots (1,633!) is high.
This election cycle challenged the county election office in other ways, too. The three-person Election Commission opted to take on much of the work the full-time staff usually handles themselves. Conflicting interpretations of state election law and disrupted routines caused stress and confusion for his staff, Poe said.
He points to the commission’s decision to reject a significant portion of absentee ballots delivered in person by “designated bearers.” Poe said he and his staff usually process those ballots themselves and rarely reject many of them. “They just kind of made up their own process and rejected what has always been counted,” he said of the commissioners.
Tension between the staff and commissioners intensified over the past week, and one election office employee even filed a police report alleging assault at the hands of Election Commission Chairperson Evelyn Gomez.
The Election Commission is waiting for information from the Pulaski clerk’s office about provisional ballots cast by early and Election Day voters. Election commissioners expect to count more than 1,000 of those. And military and oversees voters have until Friday to get their ballots in. Commissioners will certify the final results once all these votes are counted. The deadline for final results is Nov. 18.
The Election Commission is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. both today (Thursday) and Friday.