Bill would consolidate Arkansas election oversight in secretary of state's office | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Bill would consolidate Arkansas election oversight in secretary of state's office

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2017 at 9:47 AM

click to enlarge Rep. Michelle Gray
  • Rep. Michelle Gray

A bill sponsored by Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) would transfer the state Board of Election Commissioners to the secretary of state's office.

That would "politicize" and make the board "effectively ... inconsequential", the state board's Republican Party designee said.

Currently, oversight of elections in Arkansas is split between the state board (which assists local election officials and investigates complaints of misconduct, among other things) and the secretary of state (which maintains the voter registration system and candidate filings, among other things). The secretary of state is an elected office, whereas six of the seven election commissioners are appointed (the secretary of state chairs the body). This dual structure is intended to provide checks and balances in the elections process

Rep. Gray's HB 1447 would remove the board's ability to hire a director and other staff and would place the board within the secretary of state's office. Although non-codified language at the beginning of the bill says "The State Board of Election Commissioners shall exercise [its] powers, authorities, duties, and functions independently of the office of the Secretary of State," it also declares that the state board "shall be administered under the direction and supervision of the Secretary of State."

Election Commissioner Stu Soffer, the Republican designee to the state board, had this to say about the proposal:
Speaking only for myself as a state election commissioner. HB1447 will essentially politicize and effectively make the State Board of Election Commissioners inconsequential by placing it under Secretary of State. It’s introduction came as a complete surprise to both the staff and commissioners. I am disappointed we were not given the courtesy of advance notice and providing input by whomever asked for it to be introduced. I know one of the sponsors and am confident she would not have sponsored HB1447 had she been aware of events and with the knowledge the state board was not consulted. This afternoon, I requested in writing to the Secretary of State (who chairs the state board) to call an emergency meeting by Friday so the board as a whole can address HB1447. I anticipate at least three other commissioners will do the same – as required by law.

A similar bill was introduced in the 89th General Assembly and the state board unanimously opposed it. I anticipate no less an outcome this time. The concept I would like to see addressed is creating an independent Arkansas Election Agency incorporating much of what Secretary of State Elections Division does with what the state board is responsible for. The way to ensure non-partisan independence is for key personnel decisions to be made by 2/3 vote of the appropriate joint committee. That would retain institutional memory each time there is a change in Secretary of State, a concept that has been very successful in other states.

I and others have been working diligently for over 6 years, with 4 as a member of the state board, to improve the election process in Arkansas and in particular how we respond to citizen complaints. Folding the state board under an already overwhelmed executive office will not serve any useful purpose.

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