Friday, June 13, 2008

EDITORIAL >>They’re still stealing votes

The state Senate’s 19-12 vote to allow Sen. Jack Crumbly to keep his seat while authorities investigate the election procedures in St. Francis County leaves us a little unsatisfied. Would it not have served justice and the unfortunate voters of that corruptible district better to declare the office vacant and require a special election to fill it?

The people, after all, should be the objective and not which of the two men, Crumbly or former state Rep. Arnall Willis, is most deserving.

The people chose one or the other to represent them in the Senate for four years in the Democratic primary in 2006, and owing to substantial fraud in the election mechanics it now seems impossible to determine what their choice was. A full trial that tried to ascertain the validity of disputed ballots and for whom they were cast might have settled that issue, but the courts punted to the Senate, which for the first time in the modern era took up the matter of whether one of its members was validly elected to office.

Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, voted to oust Crumbly because he believes the election was stolen. The Senate did not have the means to decide that with absolute certainty, although the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs of the Senate, which did a lengthy inquiry into the election, concluded that there was fraud on a large scale and that it may have influenced the outcome.

Sen. Steve Faris, chairman of the committee, said the election was “the saddest and most disgusting chapter in the history of the Senate.” That would indeed be very disgusting.

The evidence was clear that the St. Francis County Election Commission was campaigning very hard for the local boy, Jack Crumbly, who seems to be a decent fellow. Most of the senators seem to have concluded that whatever wrongs were committed, Crumbly himself was not responsible.

They seemed to conclude that Crumbly was an innocent but deserving beneficiary of skullduggery, and that might or might not have been enough to elect him in a close race. Crumbly, who recused himself from voting on his own status, acknowledged that good election procedures were flouted, but he believed motives were pure.

Willis was first declared the winner by 28 votes in the spring of 2006, but a recount gave it to Crumbly by 68 votes. A second recount confirmed Crumbly as the winner, although questions were raised about the handling of a number of ballots.

Election fraud has been a part of the Arkansas culture since 1837 and it continues, although in increasingly rare instances, because we rarely get to the root of it and no one is ever punished.

The attitude is that good men get caught up in the democratic fever of political advocacy and get carried away. You don’t want to send good men to jail for excessive ardor for their friends or sully their reputations in the community by charging them with crimes. So the message always is that a little vote theft is tolerable, but you have to be careful.

To its credit, the Senate wanted to get to the bottom of it.

The State Agencies Committee referred the matter to federal and state authorities. The local prosecutor in the east Arkansas district did not want to investigate his county’s election, so a special prosecutor from outside the district has been appointed.

Faris said he had met with the United States attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas and supplied him with the evidence that the committee had amassed.

Do not expect too much of the investigation. At some point, election officials may be rebuked for their carelessness, but the wrongs of another election will not be rectified.

Some hereabouts remember a similar election dispute nearly 50 years ago when election officials in Lonoke and Prairie counties went about stealing votes in about equal proportions trying to put a local boy in the state Senate. Lonoke County wanted its favorite son in the position and Prairie County wanted its own.

The counties had an old gentleman’s agreement that Lonoke County would get the senator for four years and then Prairie County for four years. But the Prairie County man, Sen. Jerry Screeton of Hazen, did not want to surrender it when it became Lonoke County’s turn. Prairie County had the better vote bandits and kept the seat.