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Baxter County Election Commission removes 36 Republican ballots from tabulation machines after discrepancy uncovered

Baxter County Election Commissioners worked past midnight Wednesday evening to remove 36 incorrect 6-2-1 precinct ballots from three separate tabulation machines after a Republican voter noticed a discrepancy while voting last week.

The discrepancy resulted in the Republican ballot for precinct 6-2-1 showing the House District 3 race between Stetson Painter and Tom Bryant instead of the correct House District 4 race between incumbent Jack Fortner and his challenger, Bruce Emerson.

The removed ballots were placed into a sealed box that will be opened on election day so that those affected ballots can be hand-counted. The incorrect district race will be struck from the ballot during the hand count.

To ensure election integrity and fairness, the commission has also reached out to affected voters to offer them the opportunity to cast a single vote for the House District 4 race. Only nine voters have returned to the Baxter County Courthouse to cast their House District 4 vote.

“There was an error that was made,” said County Clerk Canda Reese. “It wasn’t a machine error. It wasn’t a computer error. It was a human error. In the spirit of absolute transparency, we have absolutely nothing to hide. Somebody made a mistake, and we have done everything we can to make this right.”

After being notified of the ballot discrepancy last Wednesday, the election commission spent Saturday afternoon reprogramming tabulation machines at three locations, including the Baxter County Courthouse, the Twin Lakes Plaza, and the Election Commissions office at 213 E. 5th Street in downtown Mountain Home.

Baxter County uses a chart sheet that contains all of the information surrounding each race, including which districts those races are in, to program its tabulation machines.  While creating this chart sheet for the election commission, an employee in the Clerk’s Office incorrectly placed a three instead of a four in the House District column on the 6-2-1 precinct, resulting in the county’s tabulation machines being incorrectly programmed. House District 4 is the correct district for precinct 6-2-1.

Baxter County has seen some major shifts in its House District lines over the past few years, which may have caused confusion and led to the error. The county currently has 43 separate precincts covering various districts with races and positions that often overlap with each other.

“We have 43 precincts in Baxter County, and each of those precincts have separations of districts,” Reese said. “For example, one might be inside the city limits, and another outside the city limits, but both of them be in the same school district, the same senate district, the same house district.”

After allowing members of the public and the press to gather on the second floor of the courthouse Wednesday evening, the Baxter County Election Commission began the process of breaking the seal on the courthouse’s incorrectly programmed tabulation machine.

Once the seals were removed, the commission removed the tub of ballots from the machine while also checking the emergency dropbox for ballots. They then began the process of sifting through the ballots in a search for the incorrect ballots. The courthouse had 24 of the 36 affected ballots in its tabulation machine.

After finding the 24 Republican ballots at the courthouse, the commissioners placed the ballots inside of a freshly sealed dropbox. That dropbox would be unsealed and resealed throughout the night as the commission added more ballots from the other early voting locations throughout the night.

The only time the dropbox was out of the sight of observers was during its transportation to each location.

With the incorrect 6-2-1 ballots in hand, the commission then went through the process of running the remaining non-affected ballots through a correctly programmed tabulation machine so that they could be counted.

The incorrectly programmed tabulation machine was resealed and will no longer be used for the remainder of the election cycle. Any information remaining on the incorrectly programmed machines will not be used during the count on election night. The ballots that were re-scanned into a new machine throughout the night were considered virgin ballots after being removed from their old machine and will be fully honored during the final count next Tuesday.

The commission then transported the sealed dropbox containing the affected ballots to the next voting location, where the process was done again.

Each location yielded the correct number of erroneous ballots by the end of the night with 24 coming from the courthouse, 10 at the Twin Lakes Plaza, and two at the Election Commissions Office. The numbers for the non-affected ballots that were run through the correctly programmed tabulators matched the commission’s records, minus the removed ballots.

Each count was witnessed by both the Mountain Home Observer, the Baxter Bulletin, and members of the public.

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