Faulty flash-drive installations and a brand-new election commission closed a county polling site for nearly three hours and spurred a lawsuit that made its way to the state’s Supreme Court during Tuesday’s judicial and party primary elections.
Tuesday afternoon, Lonoke County Circuit Judge Barbara Elmore denied a petition by Democrats to keep that county’s polls open until 10 p.m. — as opposed to the 7:30 p.m. statewide closing time set by law — after an election site in England was closed when voting machines went on the fritz.
Elmore’s decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court late Tuesday. The high court held a conference call about the lawsuit and ruled against keeping the polls open, said Chris Burks, an attorney with the Democratic Party of Arkansas. Attorneys were notified of the decision just before 7 p.m.
The Democratic Party and registered voters Ellis Williams III and Elsie Yarbrough filed the lawsuit just after lunch Tuesday against the Lonoke County Election Commission.
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In their lawsuit, Williams and Yarbrough said their polling place — the England Recreation and Fitness Center on 107 Valley View Drive — was closed when they arrived shortly after polls statewide were to open at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Then, when the polling place opened at 10 a.m., the lawsuit claims, there were no paper ballots for the Democratic primaries, but plenty for other elections.
“Republican-controlled election commissions cannot deny due process and equal protection of the law,” Burks said.
Messages left for Williams and Yarbrough were not returned as of late Tuesday.
Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray blamed the problems on the secretary of state’s office for not giving enough backing to individual counties to prevent election problems such as aging voting equipment and weak contingency plans.
“The problems arise on the local level, but really they are hamstrung by the lack of support from the state. In this particular instance, it’s just not acceptable,” Gray said. “Safeguards are not put in place so we’re having to file lawsuits to get problems fixed.”
Chris Powell, a spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin, said Gray’s accusations were “blatantly false.”
The secretary of state’s office coordinates elections with county officials.
Lonoke County Election Commission Chairman Stubby Stumbaugh said there were problems with the machines all across the county, not just in England. He attributed them to brand-new election commissioners — who are going through an election for the first time — and improper storage of equipment.
Stumbaugh was asked to serve after the county’s former election commission chief, Jim Bailey, decided to run for Lonoke mayor. Bailey is challenging incumbent Wayne McGee in the Democratic primary.
“It’s just a lack of education on a novice election committee,” Stumbaugh said.
In some cases, the new commissioners inserted the flash drives incorrectly, leading to equipment failure, Stumbaugh said.
And the 12-year-old machines are “just old,” he said.
The voting machines were not stored in a climate-controlled building, and they are subjected to mice and bird droppings, leading to slight damage, Stumbaugh said.
“When plastics in electronics heat up, you tend to have issues with them,” he said.
Lonoke County is on track to buy new machines soon in a 50/50 arrangement with the secretary of state’s office at a cost of about $188,000, Stumbaugh said.
“I’m also talking with the county judge, who is the keeper of all facilities, to get a new building to house these machines,” he said.
Stumbaugh said he doesn’t have an answer to the claim that there were no Democratic ballots at the England poll site.
“I’m not sure if they’re talking about the mayoral race or something else,” he said. “I don’t have a clue.”
By noon, Stumbaugh said all the problems had been worked out.
“It’s smooth as silk now,” he said. “It’s running like a well-oiled machine.”
Heather McKim, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said a few “little hiccups” happened early in the voting day, but overall, the election process was going smoothly.
“We had a few reports of possible election errors, like [campaign] signs being too close to the building,” McKim said. “It’s all being looked at by the commissions. Those kinds of things come with every election.”
Pulaski County Election Commission Director Bryan Poe said turnout seemed to be heavier than usual, but the problems were minor.
Power went out about 2:30 p.m. at Precinct 126 in Ironton Baptist Church off Interstate 530, but voting continued with paper ballot like clockwork, Poe said.
“We’re getting some calls here and there, but they’ve all been small issues,” Poe said.
Paper ballots were put into use in Phillips County when a software problem shut down the machines, said Harold Wayne Boals, Phillips County Election Commission chairman.
“When it first started, they didn’t know how to set up the machines,” Boals said. “We took care early in the morning, and it’s all going good now.”
Metro on 05/23/2018