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The Baxter County Republican Committee elected former Baxter County Election Commissioner Gary Smith as their replacement pick for the Baxter County Election Commission following the resignation of former commissioner Lynn Weaver on June 1.
Weaver resigned from the commission not long after it was discovered that she and the other commissioners serving on the BCEC made the decision to conduct a hand recount of May’s special millage election in secret. Weaver did not state an official reason for resigning.
Smith’s appointment, which took place on Aug. 29, comes 89 days after Weaver left her post, a full 44 days over the legal time limit set in place by state law. Smith was voted out of his position in February after the Ozark Patriots, whose founders announced they were stepping back from the political organization on Friday, took over the BCRC.
Prior to his leaving the BCEC, Smith had been caught looking at a race-deciding ballot in secret alongside former election commissioner Judy Garner. He ran unopposed in this special election.
“I accept the nomination, and I will fulfill the current term throughout 2023, 2024,” Smith said during the Aug. 29 meeting.
When asked about paper ballots during the nomination process, Smith said, “It doesn’t matter how I feel. I am going to follow Arkansas law to the best I can. If they tell us to use paper ballots, then we use paper ballots. If they tell us to use machines, we use machines.”
The BCRC has racked up a series of scandals over the past two years, with all of its elected commissioners being caught meeting in secret to make decisions at some point during their terms.
During Smith’s tenure, he and his fellow commissioner, Judy Garner, were found to have opened a ballot in secret alongside former Baxter County Republican Committee Chairman Rick Peglar.
The results of that ballot were then communicated to Baxter County JP Shannon Walker, who was waiting to learn if she would be going into a runoff election against Vincent Anderson or Sheila Wingard.
The scandal resulted in an investigation by the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners following a complaint filed by the Observer.
In response to the investigation, the State Board of Election Commissioners issued letters of warning to Garner and Smith. Bodenhamer was not a part of the secret ballot canvassing and was dismissed from the investigation by the SBEC.
“This letter is to inform you that your complaint filed on June 8, 2022, has been resolved, pursuant to AC.A. § 7-4-120, by issuing Letters of Warning to Chairman Judy Garner and Commissioner Gary Smith of the Baxter County Election Commission, as well as dismissing Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer. These warning letters find that Chairman Garner and Commissioner Smith violated civil election law regarding the canvassing of an absentee ballot at a time and location not reflected in the notice of election and, therefore, not allowing the canvass to be open to the public.”
While the letters were little more than slaps on the wrist for a first-time offense, both Smith and Garner quickly found themselves ousted by the Ozark Patriots, who were quickly filling the ranks of the BCRC’s membership, during February’s elections over the county’s two Republican election commissioner seats.
BCRC Chairman Rick Peglar was also ousted from his position by the current chairman, Chris Chamberlin, who was later revealed to have past ties to the League of the South, a white supremacist and Neo-Confederate organization that operated in the late 90s and early 2000s.
The BCRC’s new leadership voted in former election commissioner Lynn Weaver and current commissioner Bill Andres in a landslide.
Following their appointment, Weaver and Andres began work on preparing for Mountain Home Public School’s special millage election. At some point, Weaver and Democrat Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer agreed to conduct a hand recount and audit of the millage election while speaking with Baxter County Clerk Canda Reese in the hallway of the Baxter County Courthouse.
That decision was passed on to Andres at some unknown point, and all three election commissioners went public with their decision at their respective party committee meetings, with Republicans announcing the recount on April 25.
No ballot had even been cast at that point.
When asked when the decision was made, as no public meeting had been held on the matter as required by law, Weaver and the commission initially deflected by stating in an email that they had the legal power to conduct a recount if they so wished.
In response, the Observer filed a FOIA request for the minutes of the public meeting in which the decision was made. The BCEC responded by holding an unannounced public meeting on May 12, the same day they received the FOIA request, to create a document detailing their decision to go through with the audit, despite the evidence they had been planning months in advance.
Weaver and the commission ultimately admitted to making the decision in secret. Weaver resigned shortly after. Following the resignation, the BCEC and the Baxter County Quorum Court worked to create an Election Coordinator position within the county to assist the commission during their elections.
With Weaver gone, BCRC Chairman Chris Chamberlin announced that the committee would hold an election within 45 days to fill the vacant spot. Yet, that election never came, with the 45-day deadline quietly slipping by.
When asked why the committee had missed the deadline, the Observer received mixed replies, with BCEC Commissioner Andres stating that Smith had not made up his mind about accepting the appointment. Chamberlin blamed the delay on a misunderstanding of changes to the law via Act 138, which modified the Arkansas Code § 7-4-102(f) to allow the chairman of each respect county committee to appoint a temporary replacement commissioner in the event of a vacancy.
Under Act 138, the temporary appointment lasts until the committee can vote on a replacement. The time limit for that vote is 45 days under the old version of Arkansas Code § 7-4-102(f) and the new one via Act 138.
A follow-up story on the BCRC’s presentation on the next political push for paper ballots will be published later this week.