A state Republican party official has looked into Faulkner County’s election practices in light of last week’s allegations of impropriety and the resignation of a county election commissioner.
Faulkner County Election Commissioner Marvin Lessmann resigned during Thursday night’s contentious election commission meeting, saying that Faulkner County Clerk Melinda Reynolds had breached state law in previous elections by neglecting to verify that signatures on absentee ballots matched signatures on absentee voter applications.
Lessmann cited on Friday and on Monday a tape recording of the meeting in which Reynolds states that she has never verified the signatures on absentee ballots as proof that Reynolds has conducted election operations illegally.
Reynolds said on Monday that she did say this, and that it is absolutely true: She has never verified the ballot signatures.
"Legally, I can’t be in on the absentee counting," Reynolds said. "The election commission hires or employs or appoints — or however you want to say it — people to serve absentee counters, and they’re considered poll workers, and that’s their job just like any poll worker serving in the precincts on election day."
Upon resigning, Lessmann called for the state Republican party to investigate county election practices.
"I told them that I wanted to dispel the rumor that this was some sort of vendetta," Lessmann said Monday. "This is all about following the law and the spirit of the law. For them to tap dance around technicalities is not acceptable anymore."
Lessmann said later on Monday that it was common knowledge that Reynolds had "been running" previous election commissions — and thereby elections themselves — including the previous commission on which he served. He said that when it became clear to him Thursday that Reynolds would continue to conduct the affairs of her office in a way he believed to be illegal, he decided that he would best serve the public by "stepping outside the commission to tell the truth."
He also called for Reynolds’ resignation in a news release he issued on Friday.
"I tried to work from within to change the process to a legal process, and I couldn’t," he said. "I’m stepping outside the process to shed some light on it to let people know that they’ve been running elections outside the law and without the proper resources."
The candidates and voters, he said, deserved this.
His call for an investigation was answered by Dr. Johnny K. Rhoda, Arkansas GOP chairman for the Second Congressional District. Rhoda spoke to the Log Cabin early Monday afternoon saying that he was headed to Conway to meet with county officials, starting with Faulkner County Attorney Stephan Hawks, and that he planned to meet with Reynolds as well as election commissioners and other local officials in coming days.
"We’re opening an investigation from the Republican Party’s side into these claims — I’ll not call them allegations yet," Rhoda said while on his way to Conway. "If there is a need for legal action, we'll be able to advise our attorneys on what needs to be done."
Rhoda finished his meeting with Hawks shortly after 3 p.m., saying that, "After talking with Stephan Hawks and Marvin (Lessmann), I am convinced that this issue is closed as far as the (Arkansas GOP) executive committee of the Second Congressional District is concerned."
Rhoda also said during this conversation that Lessmann and Reynolds "both have misunderstood each other, and I believe that this is because of an emotional bias."
Hawks said that during the meeting, he and Rhoda went over the sections of law governing absentee voting and both concluded that it was the duty of election officials — a term covering poll workers, election commissioners and those charged with verifying votes at the precinct level — and not the county clerk to verify these signatures during the process of tallying votes.
When notified that Rhoda had said that "the issue is closed" regarding Reynolds’ alleged negligence in verifying signatures, Lessmann said that Reynolds had also "never" provided election officials with the absentee ballot applications against which the absentee ballot signatures are checked and said that Reynolds had also admitted to never providing these applications during Thursday’s meeting.
Lessmann added that he was under the impression that Rhoda still shared his concerns about Reynolds and the election process after meeting with Hawks.
When asked if he had changed his position on the issue, Rhoda said that he had met with Lessmann after meeting with Hawks, and together they had reviewed the tape recording of Thursday’s meeting.
"Melinda Reynolds openly admits on recorded tape that she has never verified signatures on absentee ballots or cross-checked documents to verify that the absentee voter was who they claimed to be," Rhoda said.
In light of his review of the recording, and other conversations he’d had with attorneys and concerned individuals and having had more time to study the issue, he said early Monday evening, he had decided to reopen the investigation.
"After talking to some other people and other attorneys here in town, they have told me that there are some issues here and that if I had closed it I needed to reopen it," he said.
Though he had indicated that he had agreed with Hawks’ interpretation of the law that it was not Reynold’s responsibility earlier Monday, he said that he had changed his mind.
"I disagree with Stephan Hawks’ interpretation of the law ... it is her responsibility to do those things or ensure that some competent individual has done it."
Rhoda said that it is accepted practice "in every other county office" that the county clerk is the "chief election official," thereby assuming responsibility for verifying the signatures on election night.
"I think that is where the issue of semantics gets skewed," he said. "Based on the 2008 fiasco here regarding absentee ballots there is a tendency in this county to overlook details."
He also said that his words "the issue is closed" earlier in the day had referred only to his conclusion that Hawks was not "hiding anything" from him, and not to the allegations against Reynolds.
When asked if she provided election officials with the applications for absentee ballots, Reynolds said that she always had, and that as far as she knew the poll workers charged with processing the absentee ballots had, as a practice, verified the ballot signatures with the signatures on the application, though she was never in the room when this happened.
Hawks said that neither Lessmann nor Rhoda had brought up the subject of Reynolds’ failure to provide election officials these applications on Monday, though it didn’t seem reasonable that election officials would never have asked for them to be brought, given that they are kept in the same courthouse that the election officials work in on election night.
Former Faulkner County Election Commission Chairman Bruce Haggard, who said that he served on the commission for "four or five years" before resigning in 2008, after a number of electronic voting machines were erroneously programmed during that year’s primaries, said that he, too, believed that election officials had usually verified absentee ballot signatures on election night using absentee ballot signatures provided by Reynolds.
Haggard added that if poll workers had neglected to verify these signatures or if the applications were not available on election night, which he couldn’t say with certainty had or hadn’t happened during his term on the commission, it was common practice among members of parties, usually the Republican party — nationally and locally — to challenge the results of elections, resulting in scrutiny of the ballots including the signatures.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached at 505-1238 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit.)