Friday, May 23, 2008

TOP STORY > >Counting in Lonoke County is done early

Leader staff writer

Turnout for the Lonoke County primaries was up nearly 50 percent this year, according to Larry Clarke, chairman of the election commission, even though only about 20 percent of the county’s registered voters exercised their franchise.

He said 7,256 residents voted, compared to the usual 5,000. That’s out of about 34,000 registered voters.

About 20 percent of all ballots were cast in the early voting period, Clarke said.

He said the commission had the absentee paper ballots all scanned and in the computer by 3 p.m. election day, but didn’t announce those results until the polls closed at 7:30.

A runoff election June 10 will settle whether Ronald Evans or Bill Ryker will be the Lonoke County District 10 justice of the peace, and Austin voters will decide on a penny sales tax.

Early voting will begin June 3.

While there have been no challenges or requests for recounts, one race is still technically up in the air, he said. Janette Minton maintained her quorum court seat with a four-vote victory over Larry Ridgeway, but five overseas ballots have yet to be counted. Other absentee ballots have trended toward Minton.

Meanwhile, in a county where only a few years ago it took four days to get the result, and more recently final figures weren’t available until about 2 a.m., election officials began packing up about 9:30 Tuesday night.

Gone are the days when results from each township had to be hand posted on a giant grid, and in its place, a computer cycled continuously through the updated results in the lobby of the courthouse.

The large turnout was helped by interest in the circuit judge’s races and by a recent surge in voter registration in preparation for the November presidential race, Clarke speculated.

Nearly all votes in Lonoke County are cast on touch-screen computer voting machines. The only paper ballots are for absentee and provisional ballots, Clarke said.

Election officials from each of the 26 Lonoke County townships now bring a small electronic storage device not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. At the courthouse, that device is plugged into the election commission’s laptop computer.

The results are downloaded instantaneously, and available to local observers immediately on the projection screen in the courthouse lobby.

“We were done about 9:30 p.m.,” said Clarke, but we were waiting for only two precincts since 8:30—Magness and England.”

He said they are farthest from the courthouse, but Clarke said he hoped they would get their election results into the courthouse more quickly in the future.

Clarke, who has been at the helm of the shift from paper to electronic voting, said the technology was 1950s when he started.

“It was totally out of control,” he said. Clarke says he convinced the other election commissioners and the quorum court to bring the county into the 21st Century.

“We’ve increased the confidence of the voters that when they vote, it’s going to count. We’re shooting results starting at 7:30 p.m. — no more of that two and three in the morning stuff.”

In the November general election, the only challenges for office within the county will be Republican Doug Hatcher against Democrat Walls McCreary to replace Democrat Lenville Evans as Dist. 15 state representative.

Also, Republican Sheriff Jim Roberson against Democrat Steve Rick for sheriff; Democratic County Clerk Dawn Porterfield against Republican Cassandra Pitts; Circuit Clerk Deborah Oglesby, a Democrat, against Susan Denise Browne, a Republican; Dist. 13 JP Mark Edwards, a Republican, against Kenny Ridgeway, a Democrat, and Dist. 5 JP Lynn Clarke, a Republican, against Barry Weathers, a Democrat.

“Everything else is uncontested,” Larry Clarke said of the county races.

Clarke, who installs swimming pools, says the amount of time and energy it takes to run elections is enormous and that he looks forward to a time in the not-so-distant future when someone else can take on the burden.

The general elections aren’t too hard on his swimming pool business, but the primaries fall at a time when people want swimming pools, he said.