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Election Commission remains silent on questions surrounding secret ballot counting

The Baxter County Election Commission has failed to respond to a series of Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requests by the Mountain Home Observer regarding members of the commission opening and counting a ballot in secret.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requires commissions to respond to FOIA requests within three days of receiving the request. The Observer sent its FOIA request to all three commissioners and their attorney on Friday, June 3.

Election Commissioner Gary Smith responded to the Observer that the Commission had received the request on the evening of June 3, but no response has been given regarding the information requested in the Observer’s request. No documentation has been provided as well.

The Observer’s move to FOIA Baxter County’s Election Commission springs from a secret meeting conducted by Commissioners Gary Smith and Judy Garner to open and count a provisional ballot in the JP 10 District Race.

At some point, after telling both the Mountain Home Observer and the Baxter Bulletin that the rest of the county’s remaining provisional and provisional absentee ballots would be opened and counted at 1:30 p.m. on May 24, Garner, Smith, and Rick Peglar, the chairman for the Baxter County Republican Committee, opened a ballot to determine who would be going to the runoff in the JP 10 race between Shannon Walker, Vincent Anderson, and Sheila Wingard.

Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer is said to not have been in attendance for the opening of the ballot.

Both Anderson and Wingard were neck in neck for second place, with Anderson trailing by a single vote. After opening the ballot to determine the runoff candidates, Garner then told Walker in a phone conversation that she would be facing Wingard in the runoff. 

During several conversations with the Observer, Garner confirmed that the ballot had been opened despite stating that the ballots would be opened and counted next Tuesday. Peglar confirmed that he was there as a witness during a phone call. Walker confirmed that she was told about the ballot result from Garner.

Walker then told Anderson about the results, resulting in Anderson announcing that he would be taking down his campaign signs.

No members of the press or public were notified that the race determining ballot would be opened before May 24. It is unknown if any other ballots were opened or tampered with during this meeting.

“We opened the ballot because we have to make a ballot for the upcoming race to find out who’s in that race,” said Garner. “We had one candidate who got a lot of votes, and we have to have a runoff. Well, the second candidate, I know what numbers they had, let’s say 350 votes… it’s 135. The second one would be 136. Well, the one behind the third candidate had 135, and it could affect us making our ballot for the next election. We needed to find out who is in this runoff so we could put them on the ballot.”

Election Commissions are required under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act to notify the public and the press two hours before any meetings in which actions or policy decisions occur.

The Observer’s FOIA request consists of basic questions that the Commission refused to answer after telling the Observer to speak to their attorney.

Requests include things like a list of all people in attendance at this ballot opening, the location of Election Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer during the opening of this ballot, copies of all documents signed by Rick Peglar during the opening of this ballot, a list of all people on the phone call between Judy Garner and Shannon Walker following the counting of this ballot, and a list of any other ballots that were opened during this meeting.

Before election day, the Observer notified the Election Commission through an official letter that the Observer requested to be informed about any and all official or unofficial, formal or informal meetings alike conducted by the commission. A copy of this letter was also sent to the Baxter County Clerk.

The Observer has filed a formal complaint with the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissions against the Baxter County Election Commission over this event.

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