- Anna Cotton’s ballot was among the roughly 1,500 absentee ballots disqualified in Pulaski County
- A flood of ballots sent in from home knocked standard procedures out of whack, creating significant delays and confusion
- The unique stressors of 2020 revealed significant room for clarification and improvement in the vote-counting process
If we learned anything from Pulaski’s two-week-long vote tallying odyssey, it’s that there’s far more to the process than simply putting ballots in different piles and then counting them all up.
So persnickety is the process, in fact, that even the wife of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton found her ballot in the reject pile.
A spreadsheet kept by the Pulaski County election office reveals Anna Cotton’s ballot was disqualified for “designated bearer information missing.” That means that Anna Cotton opted to have her ballot hand-delivered, and that the person who delivered it failed to include his or her printed name, signature and/or address on a voter statement that must accompany every absentee ballot.
This clerical oversight by Anna Cotton or her designated bearer puts her in good company. Of the 25,050 absentee ballots Pulaski County voters sent in by mail or by hand this election cycle, at least 1,473 never made it to the counting machine. Election officials DQ ballots for lots of reasons, including missing signatures, no photocopy of ID and no completed red voter statement mailed in along with the ballot. A surprising number of voters mistakenly wrote that day’s date rather than his or her birthdate on one particular section of the voter statement, rendering the ballots disqualified.
While Pulaski commissioners relegated Anna Cotton’s ballot to the disqualified list, they made different judgements for other ballots with similar issues. Robena “Ben” Hussman, for instance, sent her absentee ballot in via a designated bearer. Hussman, wife of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, failed to include her designated bearer’s address on her voter statement, which sent her into a pile of ballots needing further review. Still, it appears she eventually made the cut to have her ballot count.
With results finalized, Pulaski Election Commissioner Josh Price reports Pulaski County counted 94.1 percent of the absentee ballots, a number he sees as a win. Still, most other states put up significantly better stats for absentee ballot acceptance rates.
Pulaski election commissioners repeatedly wrestled with questions about which votes should count and which should not during what became a contentious and exhausting two-week process. Arkansas law does address which ballots can and cannot be legally counted. But as with many laws, there’s still plenty of room for interpretation. For example, signatures on absentee ballot applications and voter statements must “compare.” If they don’t, those ballots can be rejected. But of course determining if signatures “compare” or not is often a judgement call. And it’s fair to say commissioners, poll workers and full-time election staffers disagree on plenty of the finer points.
For example, Pulaski Election Director Bryan Poe said he rarely disqualifies ballots that lack information about the designated bearer. In quieter election years, Poe and the rest of the election office staff handle most of the canvassing process themselves. Canvassing, in this instance, refers to examining voter records and other documentation to determine if ballots are legitimate.
But the three Pulaski County election commissioners (Republicans Evelyn Gomez and Kristi Stahr and Democrat Joshua Price) took a more hands-on approach this year. And they seemed to use more stringent interpretations of election law. Commissioners’ decision to dive in and canvas the ballots themselves either threw a wrench into what had been an effective and time-tested system or exposed lots of previously unexamined flaws in Pulaski’s vote-counting process (it depends on who you ask).
It’s possible both things are true, that trained poll workers and election office staffers would have handled the ballots more smoothly, but the record number of absentee ballots to be canvassed would still have revealed some weak spots. The high turnout that comes with presidential elections, along with a decision to allow all voters to send their ballots from home to avoid COVID exposure, meant more than 25,000 voters skipped out on polling places entirely and sent ballots in the mail, dropped them off curbside at the Pulaski County Courthouse or had them hand-delivered by designated bearers (who may or may not have provided their printed names, addresses and signatures in the appropriate boxes). This tidal wave of absentee ballots marks a five-fold increase of Pulaski County’s previous record absentee haul. And although poll workers beefed up their ranks and got in position two weeks before Election Day to handle the influx, the huge numbers inevitably knocked poll workers and election officials out of their usual routine.
Pulaski County election commissioners stuck to their standard practice of not inspecting ballots flagged by poll workers for futher review until Election Day, despite an order from Gov. Asa Hutchinson that allowed them to begin absentee ballot canvassing two weeks before Nov. 3. The system that worked in years past stood no chance in 2020, and Election Day was merely the beginning of a stressful, contentious and dramatic vote count process. At least one veteran poll worker, Charlie Beckman, said commissioners would have avoided the entire drawn-out mess if they took the head start the governor offered.
The silver lining from Pulaski County’s 2020 stormy vote count may be new laws so fewer voters find their ballots disqualified on the next go-round. Ideas so far include making it possible for people to correct minor errors on their voter statements so their votes can count. Right now Arkansas law offers no “cure” option except to voters who forgot to both include a photocopy of ID and sign the optional voter identity verification. Allowing people to register to vote wholly online, without having to mail in physical applications, would make another sweet perk for the 2021 session. And why not make absentee ballot applications and voter statements easier to fill out correctly, so that senators’ spouses can vote, too?