Council eases sanctions linked to electoral inquiry

The Arkansas Election Oversight Board on Wednesday chose to reduce the penalties imposed on the current and previous Chairs of the Pulaski County Election Commission following complaints filed about the November election.

The state’s council of electoral commissioners had previously voted to issue letters of reprimand to the three people who made up the commission during the election: Republicans Evelyn Gomez and Kristi Stahr and Democrat Joshua Price.

The months-long staff investigation based on overlapping complaints made four findings that were probable cause of electoral law violations: inclusion of 327 disqualified ballots in the total count, failure to certify accurate results, the timely and accurate reporting of unofficial election results which included a count of outstanding ballots.

Gomez and Price have since left the commission. Stahr is now the president, but she said after Wednesday’s debates that she would likely resign.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas »]

Letters of reprimand were also sent to Bryan Poe, who was then the county chief electoral officer, and to deputy chief electoral officer Shawn Camp. Catherine Dunlap, an election worker, received a letter of warning, less severe punishment.

Gomez and Stahr refused to accept settlement offers, triggering a civil hearing to examine the allegations.

Their lawyers did not dispute the findings of the investigation, but said the individuals should not be found guilty of breaking election law. Both Gomez and Stahr have testified to contentious relationships with staff members and said election workers did not follow their instructions.

Sylvester Smith, Stahr’s attorney, said “there was not one thing any of these ladies could have done to stop the madness.”

“There was something wrong about the 2020 election; no one opposed it. The question is who is responsible for these mistakes and in what capacity,” Smith said.

Chris Madison, legal adviser to the State Council, said commissioners have a duty to ensure the legal compliance of the election.

“If we don’t hold the commissioners accountable for the conduct of the commission, who is responsible for the election? The responsibility has to end somewhere,” Madison said.

GOP-controlled state council sent letters of rebuke to Gomez and Stahr for including disqualified ballots in the total count, failing to certify accurate results and not maintaining adequate security ballots. He sent them warning letters for failing to report timely and accurate unofficial election results, which included a record of outstanding ballots.

State commissioners voted on Wednesday to downgrade the letters of reprimand to letters of caution and issue letters of instruction alongside them. Republican Secretary of State John Thurston, Chairman of the State Council, has made proposals in this direction.

Thurston said it was a tough decision because he knew how hard the commissioners had worked.

“The money stops somewhere, I mean, every time, somewhere. But I also know the machine you’re dealing with,” he said.

He added that he hoped to see new policies and procedures implemented so that “we don’t have to deal with this anymore.”

“My position is yes, the county was not correct, and we all agree that it is up to the commission, so there is no way to dispute it,” he said.

State council commissioners Wendy Brandon and Sharon Brooks dissented over the sanctions relief when they found that the commissioners had not certified specific results.

Brandon said there were more extenuating circumstances with the other findings, but “the rubber meets the road” on the certification finding. Brooks said she agreed.

Otherwise, the votes were unanimous.

The council’s investigation was preceded by nearly two years of tension. County Judge Barry Hyde, a Democrat, assumed authority to hire and fire Pulaski County Election Commission staff in November 2019, citing an “abusive” work environment caused by an anonymous commissioner.

In the November 2020 election, Camp filed a police report indicating that Gomez had pushed him while trying to gain access to the county commission staff offices.

Also in November, a box of disqualified ballots was accidentally mixed with other ballots during the counting process, resulting in a dispute over who won the race for State House District 32, which covers west of Little Rock.

The Pulaski County commission voted unanimously to certify the election results, which Stahr said the group was advised to do by the county prosecutor.

Several courts and the Arkansas Claims Commission have rejected arguments by incumbent Republican Jim Sorvillo that the error made the winner impossible to determine, and Democrat Ashley Hudson was seated.

Smith later said that while he was happy to see the board being more lenient than in its initial decision, he believed the members had made the wrong decision.

“I think the board got it wrong. The law places obligations on a board of election commissioners, not on individual commissioners, and therefore that these ladies be held accountable for something they could not control individually,” this is wrong, ”he said.

Stahr later said she was disappointed and would likely step down from the commission today.

She said she felt the council had failed to take corrective action and failed, in part because she filed one of the complaints that led to the investigation. She also noted that without corrective action, the same problems will persist.

“I feel like I failed in the last year,” she said.

Price, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for secretary of state in 2022, said he accepts the sanction to shoulder his responsibilities, but submitted a letter saying he was only a member of the council of ‘administration.

“It’s easy to say we’re going to blame this group, this group, this group, but at the end of the day you are the controlling group,” he said.

He later added in an email that the Pulaski County commission failed in the 2020 election and that he was disappointed with the way some issues were being handled by other members.

The state council of electoral commissioners hears questions regarding Pulaski County on Wednesday at the state capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Staci Vandagriff)

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