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Arkansas Senate committee OKs bill to regulate paper ballots and hand counts

Workers sort absentee ballots in Kenosha, Wis.
Wong Maye-E
Workers sort absentee ballots in Kenosha, Wis.

A group of state senators on Thursday voted to require Arkansas counties that opt to hand count election returns to first run ballots through vote-counting machines.

Senate Bill 250 sponsor Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) and state election officials said the legislation would ensure that preliminary, unofficial election results are reported quickly.

Counties would still have the flexibility to conduct official counts by hand.

The bill would also require that so-called “paper-ballot counties” cover the expenses of printing paper ballots and ensuring their compatibility with the state’s voting machines. Counties would also have to declare preliminary, unofficial results within 24 hours of the polls closing.

The bill comes after Cleburne County last month voted to use hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots for elections. (Federal law will still require accessible voting equipment for people with disabilities.)

So far, Cleburne is the only county the Donald Trump-connected Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative has successfully lobbied to move to hand count.

Hammer said the bill was intended to bring clarity and guidelines to the process for counties that do want to pivot away from voting machines, and prevent the cost burden for a handful of counties from being shifted to the entire state.

“Why should all the other counties in the state that feel totally confident in what we have have to bear the burden for your decision to break away from what is already a proven system that has yet to be found flawed?” Hammer asked the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

The panel approved the bill in a split voice vote, with Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) voting against it. Payton’s district includes much of Cleburne County.

The Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative is part of the movement to cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections following Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020. Similar efforts popped up around the U.S. last year.

The group is led by Col. Conrad Reynolds, who said Thursday that he believed in the security of Arkansas elections until he began researching election protocols following his loss to U.S. Rep. French Hill in the GOP primary for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District.

In testimony, Reynolds attacked Election Systems and Software LLC, the manufacturer of Arkansas’ voting equipment. He inaccurately said that Arkansas’ election system lacks accountability and is not transparent or accurate.

Reynolds’ group has sued the state, asking a judge to outlaw the ES&S machines in the state.

Much of AVII’s argument centers around how the voting equipment works and that most voters can’t read the barcodes that voting tabulators use to count ballots.

However, Arkansas has consistently ranked near the top in the U.S. for election integrity, and there are pre- and post-election procedures designed to catch any attacks or problems with the voting machines.

Additionally, the state audits samples of votes, using hand counts to verify tabulators worked properly.

Hand counts are slow and prone to human error, and election security experts say hand counts should be reserved to audits and recounts.

SB 250 will next be considered by the full Senate.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.