Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth confirms Republican Party operatives have been raising questions about her office’s handling of the unprecedented surge in requests for absentee ballots and says she sees it as a vote suppression strategy.
After I learned of Republican inquiries to her office, I asked to see the requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
The letters included one from Doyle Webb, chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, in which he said there had been “allegations” in public and on social media that the clerk’s office has not been checking signatures on requests for absentee ballots against the signatures in the voter records. He said the office should do so and also should add applications for absentee ballots to the electronic voter registration system within two days, as the law requires.
Hollingsworth responded to Webb in a letter yesterday.
She also commented to me in a telephone interview: “I see it as a part of a national strategy to keep people from voting and basically throw doubt on the process. We are doing it by the law.”
Hollingsworth is a Democrat and Pulaski County typically votes heavily Democratic. Of about 155,000 votes cast for president in the county in 2016, Hillary Clinton got 56 percent of the vote, though Donald Trump easily carried Arkansas.
Vote suppression is a national strategy of the Republican Party. Tactics have included voter ID rules that are difficult for many poor and minority voters to comply with; intimidation tactics at polls, and voter roll purges. Holding down the Democratic vote will have little impact on the presidential race in Arkansas, most likely, but it’s important in the race for 2nd District Congress, held by Republican French Hill. Hill, like his Republican predecessor Tim Grifin, has never carried his home Pulaski County and Hill faces a strong challenge again this year from Democrat Joyce Elliott of Little Rock. Several Democratic state legislative candidates have also emerged to challenge incumbent Republicans in the county.
I asked Webb a series of questions by e-mail about his letter:
Do you have evidence that signatures are not being checked?
Do you believe people are being improperly cleared to receive absentee ballots?
Do you plan a court challenge of people approved for ballots in Pulaski County?
Are you pursuing these same questions in other counties in Arkansas?
Is this part of a national Republican strategy to suppress votes in Democratic-leaning areas?
Yes, we have evidence that signatures are not being checked and that people are therefore being incorrectly cleared to receive absentee ballots. This is an issue that we are pursuing in other counties as the facts lead us. The Republican Party of Arkansas takes issue when people do not follow the law, such as the case where Democrats nominated someone convicted of a federal crime in HD-12, or when out-of-state interests, attempting to place misleading ballot initiatives in our constitution, neither pass background checks nor the signatures necessary for a cure period, or in this instance where the Pulaski County Clerk cannot or will not do a very basic function of her job. I of course reject the partisan framing in your last question. We want one person, one vote, and we want every vote to be valid. It is my hope that every registered voter in the State of Arkansas is able to cast a vote on or leading into election day.
I asked him to show me some evidence.
Max, I hate to show a hand that hasn’t been played. Whoever gave you the letter from the clerk’s office could probably send you in the right direction.
Take care, Doyle
To date, the clerk has checked and approved almost 11,000 applications for absentee ballots. Hollingsworth said only a handful had been held up, but none has been rejected for a signature that didn’t match. Hollingsworth acknowledges that people’s signatures change over time and the office extends the “benefit of the doubt” to voters, who must also include address and birthdate in applications. By chance, I filled out an absentee application myself yesterday and I’m certain my scrawled, illegible signature bears little resemblance to that on my original voter registration or subsequent signatures over the years.
Among other Republicans questioning Hollingsworth was Marliese Kerr, chair of the Pulaski Republican Committee, who asked for copies of all absentee ballot requests made this year, not only for the coming general election but also for earlier primary and special elections. She has received that information.
Jason Tolbert, a Ouachita Baptist University employee who considered mounting a Republican race for the legislature in Saline County, also requested information about signature verification and applications.
Hollingsworth responded to him:
This email serves as response to your previous questions regarding verification of absentee ballot applications. My office follows the law as set forth in Ark. Code Ann. § 7-5-401 et seq. As of yesterday, September 3, 2020, there are 10,698 registered Pulaski County voters in absentee status.
Again, all application submitted have been verified.
Of the absentee ballot applications received, all but ten (10) individuals have been placed in absentee status. Of the ten applicants, four (4) did not have signatures on file, but all have been registered since at least 1980 and all were born on or before 1943; five (5) are not registered voters; and 1 (one) application had a signature mismatch. They have all been sent a notice and new Arkansas Voter Application.
During the 2018 General Election, Pulaski County registered voters requested, and this office sent, 3,624 absentee ballots. Of those ballots, 2,439 were returned, 1,070 were not.
For the 2016 General Election, 4,393 absentee ballots were counted; two (2) ballots were blank and not counted. I also included copies of the relevant destruction orders for the 2016 General Election.
This should answer your inquiry, but please don’t hesitate to contact me with further questions.
(2) (A) If the signatures on the absentee ballot application and the voter registration record are not similar, the county clerk shall not provide an absentee ballot to the voter.
The clerk is the arbiter of what is “similar.” Hollingsworth said the seven employees in the division that handles voting issues “are working as fast as they can to check signatures and see if folks are registered.”
Are Republican challenges to absentee voters to come? Sounds like it. The Republican Party is more interested in limiting the pool of voters than expanding it, whether it’s Donald Trump and his aversion to mail absentee voting; Governor Hutchinson and his refusal to extend the voting period, allow ballot drop boxes or extend the counting period for a flood of absentees, or Doyle Webb’s apparent plan to make something of signatures that aren’t sufficiently similar.
The Pulaski effort won’t make much difference in the national election, but it’s a timely example of how fine the GOP intends to grind to deliver the election to Donald Trump.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more about this at the Election Commission meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The topic arose at an earlier meeting when, in a report on applications received so far, a deputy clerk mentioned the fact that some voters had no signatures on file because of how long ago they’d registered. Stahr said then there was no exception from the law for signature matching, which perhaps explains why some now have not been cleared for absentee status.