Marvin Lessmann has claimed since resigning on Thursday from the Faulkner County Election Commission that County Clerk Melinda Reynolds has failed to do her duty by not verifying that the voter signatures on absentee ballots match the voter signatures on the applications to receive them.
Lessmann called for Reynolds’ resignation on Thursday.
Determining to a certainty whether this step in verifying absentee votes has been completed in all past elections may not be possible according to Tim Humphries, chief counsel for the Arkansas Secretary of State, who said that he had dealt with election law for about 30 years.
"I don’t know how you would verify that for past elections," Humphries said. "The only way I would know to verify it is to talk to the people that did it."
Lessmann cites an audio recording of Thursday’s election commission meeting as evidence of Reynolds failure to verify votes. The subject of absentee ballots is brought up during the meeting, and after some conversation Lessmann says, "So in other words we have not in the past looked at the signature for the request coming in and compared it to the ballots themselves."
Reynolds responds: "The applications come to my office...," at which point Lessmann interjects the question: "Are the applications being compared to the ballots coming in?"
Reynolds’ response is: "No, they don’t have to be compared to them."
Lessmann has said on Monday that he takes this statement literally, meaning that Reynolds had implied that there was no need to compare the signatures — a statement that is contrary to state law, which reads: "...the election officials shall compare the name, address, date of birth, and signature of the voter’s absentee application with the voter’s statement," which is contained in the ballot packet.
Reynolds said that she had intended her statement to mean that the ballot signatures don’t have to be compared by herself or anyone in the county clerk’s office — a view supported by state law according to Humphries — and Reynolds added that she understood that state law dictated that for a vote to be valid, the signatures would have to be favorably compared.
"The way I understand (Lessmann) is, maybe he thinks that I’m supposed to be comparing (signatures) after the ballot comes in," Reynolds said. "What I do is mark the ballot as returned and keep that box until the poll workers pick them up that night."
Reynolds is also charged with ensuring that a voter applying for an absentee ballot is the same voter listed on the county’s voter registry, but by law Reynolds is not allowed to open the ballot packets counted on election night that contain the voter’s signature. She said that she had never been inside the room where these votes are counted, and while she couldn’t confirm that the signatures were being verified, said that she provided election officials with the signed absentee ballot applications and assumed that these applications had always been used to verify signatures.
According to Debbi Manning, who said on Tuesday that she has been an election official tasked with handling absentee ballots for more than 10 years, verifying signatures was a standard practice observed by election officials counting absentee votes. In the years she has served as Chief Election Judge over absentee vote counting, Manning continued, she has ensured that this was done.
Of the six election officials who worked under Manning in 2008 counting absentee votes, two were contacted by phone on Tuesday and asked if they had verified signatures found on documents in the ballet packets with any other signatures on separate documents as part of their duties.
Both Reita Rimmer and Frances White said that to the best of their recollection, they did everything that Manning asked of them. Both said that they recalled checking to see if the documents in the ballet packet had been properly filled out, but neither could recall whether or not they had compared one signature with another.
"Not that I know of, but we may have," White said in response to the question. Rimmer responded, in part, by asking "am I a handwriting expert?"
When asked if anyone other than these six people may have been charged with verifying the signatures, Manning said that "it would be them."
The law concerning who verifies these signatures states that it is the responsibility of "election officials." This term is defined by state law as including election commissioners and the poll workers that the commission designates to serve as election clerk, election judge or election sheriff.
According to both Humphries and Joe Woodson, an attorney with the Secretary of State’s office, this definition does not include the county clerk.
When asked if he agreed with the finding that Reynolds was not responsible for the verification of these signatures, Lessmann said that it was well-known that Reynolds "has been running the election commission" in 2008 and over the course of past elections.
Reynolds denied being a de-facto leader of any election commission on Tuesday, saying that her efforts had been in support of the commissioners and their decisions.
Election Commission Chairman Frank Shaw said on Tuesday that if signatures had not been verified in past elections, he would see to it that they were under his stewardship, along with any other problems that may arise or be discovered.
"We always appreciate constructive criticism," Shaw said, "but I do not appreciate the way Mr. Lessmann has gone about raising this issue. He was on the commission, in a position where he could have worked with us to remedy this problem and any others that may arise, but he has resigned and now he is attacking us. Mr. Lessmann said when he resigned that he didn’t want to see ‘Washington-style’ political practices on the commission, and I asked him directly if he was resigning so that he could attack this body. He said that he wasn’t, and yet this is immediately what he started doing. That, to me, is ‘Washington-style’ politics and he has brought ‘Washington-style’ politics to Faulkner County, Arkansas."
(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.)