Friday, August 29, 2014

TOP STORY >> Commission reverses on early voting

Leader staff writer

The Lonoke County Election Commission agreed to hold early voting at Cabot, Lonoke, Carlisle and England sites for the general election on Nov. 4 during its Friday meeting at the county clerk’s office.

Early voting in Cabot and Lonoke will be held the 15 days prior to the election, which is allowed by law. But, in Carlisle and England, early voting will be held only on Friday, Oct. 31 and Saturday, Nov. 1.

Commissioner Chuck Eick proposed the compromise, explaining that the two days would be less confusing to voters than the previously discussed first week of the 15-day period. That week would have been interrupted by a week and weekend with no early voting, he said.

Eick was the one holdout in a previous commission meeting, citing concerns over having enough ballot machines and workers at the polls in the less populated cities.

State law requires a unanimous vote to add or remove a polling site.

But, on Friday, Eick was worried about future elections.

He explained that the state’s contract with the company that sells machines at $5,000 or more each ends in 2016.

The commissioner said he’d spoken with state officials about what will happen then.

While those officials said they would likely renew the contract and possibly purchase upgraded machines, Eick was told they “do not have the funds to buy them for counties.”

The commissioner warned, “There is nothing on the books to replace those machines…The gist of the conversation was ‘make your machines last.’”

Eick said before the vote, “We could make (early voting) work. It would be very difficult…There’s a risk factor.”

He added that the machines have a life cycle of 10 years and confirmed those 10 years have already passed.

The commission also includes chairman Richard Kyzer and M.J. Maneth, both representatives from the Lonoke County Democratic Committee. Eick represents the Lonoke County Republican Committee. All three were appointed this year after the former members stepped down.

Maneth said she was told people are suspicious when polling sites close and believe it is sometimes done for political reasons. She didn’t want to be accused of being partisan. “I want every voter given every chance that they can to vote. I want the numbers up. We don’t have numbers where they should be. I don’t want to limit anyone from voting. People don’t like partisan politics, and I think it gets us nowhere,” Maneth said.

Eick’s argument was that 92 machines have been allocated for use in the general election. The county has 106 machines, but four are broken and the remaining 102 have not been inspected. He said the commission did not have funds to fix the machines that are broken.

Eick explained that his understanding of the law as it is written and from conversations he’s had with state election commissioners is that the machines used in early voting couldn’t be reused on Nov. 4.

He continued, “There’s a tremendous risk factor for what little, very, very little you gain. Now, I realize that these people want to vote. They have a right to vote. But early voting is not a right...You have a way to vote now. It’s Election Day. If you can’t make it that day, you have an absentee ballot. Early voting is strictly a convenience for voters.”

State Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) suggested shorting places that are to have several machines on Election Day by a machine or two. Then the commission would have the machines it needs for early voting and to minimize the risk, he said.

Lonoke County Democratic Committee chairman Tim Blair, a former election commission chairman, said the law was amended in 2012 to allow the commission to reuse the machines once the paper records are removed. He also asked Eick to give him an example of machine breakdowns interrupting an election.

Jerry Shepard, another former election commissioner, warned the commission that voters would not ignore that there is a larger minority population in the southern part of the county, where Carlisle and England are located. Other supporters of the early voting sites said not having them would “disenfranchise” the poor.

Maneth described working at a polling site in the last election when one machine broke down almost immediately and two ran out of paper at the same time. She said, when she apologized to a voter waiting for her to change the paper, he said, “It’s nothing like it used to be. It’s better all the time, and you guys are working hard to get it there.”

Lonoke County Clerk Larry Clarke, who was defeated by Dawn Porterfield in the primary election, disagreed with Maneth’s fear of polling sites being shut down for political reasons. He said sites had been shut down before because no one was willing to work at them. Maneth argued that people have complained about not being asked to work at the polls.

Eick lamented that no data was available to show how much the early voting sites in Carlisle and England were used in 2012, the first and only time those sites were set up. That computer data was corrupted before Clarke took office.

Lonoke JP Tim Lemons, who is running for state representative in Dist. 43, suggested the commissioners inspect all of the machines and request that the attorney general give them an opinion on the early voting matter before an Oct. 6 deadline to finalize polling sites.

Ralph Brown said Carlisle didn’t need a site because it is just nine miles from Lonoke

Kyzer, the commission’s chairman, said, “I’m for the people of this county…I feel like it’s our duty as a commission to provide the people in the county a place to vote.” He said some people who live near Carlisle are farther from Lonoke than the nine miles.

Kyzer also said he wanted to look at opening more early voting sites in future elections and that the issue was so important this year because high voter turnout is expected.