Arkansas Dems raise concerns over uncounted ballot boxes on Election Night

The Pulaski Co. Election Commission is going through the ballots one-by-one to make sure every valid ballot gets counted.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — With a handful of close races hanging in the balance, Arkansas Democrats promised to closely follow the canvassing process for absentee ballots in Pulaski County after images emerged of several boxes seemingly set to be disqualified on Election Night.

The following day, the three members of the election commission set to work, going through those boxes.

RELATED: Over 4,300 absentee ballots ‘at-risk’ of being disqualified in Pulaski County

“We’re going through this one-by-one,” said Evelyn Gomez, the commission chair. “It’s a painstaking process.”

It’s a process she and her fellow commission members go through every election, but never on this scale with so many absentee ballots to check.

“It’s just that we have such tremendous volume,” said commissioner Joshua Price. “Now, because of the volume, we have absentee ballots that in some of these close races could make an impact.”

The county set up a canvassing process for the potentially 25,000 absentee ballots. It had workers opening outer envelopes and checking documents, leaving the ballot itself sealed inside a second envelope.

If there were problems with the documents, like missing signatures or voter I.D. questions, the ballots piled up to be double-checked.

But soon after polls closed, members of the media observing the process noticed those boxes and were told they would be tossed. That caught the attention of State Senator Joyce Elliott, who needed every vote she could find in her eventually unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Rep. French Hill in their race for Congress.

“I so wanted to believe that my vote would count, but intentional decisions were made to work against that,” Sen. Elliott said in a concession speech delayed to Wednesday while her party investigated those ballots.

Among the commissioners, any intentional decisions weren’t standing as they went through their work. They said they knew more votes would be found and counted.

“We found 65 that were in our boxes of irregular absentee ballots,” said Gomez around noon. Within minutes, they had found two dozen more and by the end of the work day, the commission moved 235 ballots off the discard pile and lined them up to be officially tallied.

The overwhelming reason most ballots were set aside was a missing affidavit with the voter’s signature. It was also one of the easiest problems to solve, with most mistakenly sealing the form in the security envelope with their ballot. Since canvassers couldn’t open the secure envelope, it fell to commissioners to open them and scrutinize the documents.  

Some 3,400 more ballots will need voter I.D. verification. The state allows voters to provide a proper I.D. six days after the election. The same opportunity is afforded absentee voters, and they will need to watch the mail for notices to carry out that process.

Because many of the controversial boxes had been sealed, observers guessed at the number of ballots that might be at risk. That prompted advocacy groups to closely follow Wednesday’s process.

“We found out that there are about 6,000 that still need to be counted,” said Austin Bailey with the non-profit For AR People. “We’re here just to make sure that every vote counts.”

The number that remain are about half that, but the commissioners share the sentiment.

“We’re just really, all three of us, working hard to do our due diligence to make sure that every ballot that is legally able to be counted is going to be counted,” said Commissioner Price.

RELATED: Joyce Elliott to concede Arkansas 2nd District race to Rep. French Hill

Another step in the process arrives Thursday morning. That’s when a number of ballots that failed to go through counting machines are reproduced or duplicated to get them to scan properly. The procedure is typical, but previously took place alongside vote-counting and away from the public eye. The commission will make the process public and will be observed by representatives from both parties.