The two new Republican Commissioners for the Baxter County Election Commission are lagging to fulfill their public pledges of transparency. Newly elected in February, both commissioners were Ozark Patriot picks.
Following Tuesday’s election, both Republican Commissioners Bill Andres and Lynn Weaver repeatedly pushed off turning over documented elections results to the Observer and other members of the public after promising to make them available at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Unlike past elections, the new commission deviated from the practice of printing out copies of summary results reports from their issued election laptops.
On election night, the commission did not load voting center thumb drive data into the computer and instead, read the results aloud from each voting center’s tabulation tape to the public, while writing down each result for each race on a paper spreadsheet they created in an attempt to keep track of the votes.
Those written results were then compared to the notes that members of the press and public took during the course of the night.
While reading the results aloud has been a customary practice during election night in Baxter County, the public is usually able to further verify what was read aloud by comparing the results that were inputted into the commission’s laptop. The summary reports are used to help verify the uncertified count that occurs on election night for accuracy and communication to the public.
The commission plans to certify the election following an unusual and potentially costly hand recount on May 16.
When the Observer arrived at the commission’s election headquarters on Wednesday morning for the promised results, they found that the doors were locked, and the election commissioners were nowhere to be found.
When asked via a phone call as to why the printouts were not available, Baxter County Election Commissioner Bill Andres said he was busy helping his wife and that Baxter County Election Commissioner Lynne Weaver had eye surgery on Thursday.
The Observer attempted to call Weaver, but all calls went straight to voicemail. Baxter County Election Commissioner Bob Bodenhamer was working at the Election Commission office at some point Wednesday morning.
Bodenhamer, the sole Democrat on the commission, was working with volunteers to round up and store voting equipment. Baxter County Historian Vincent Anderson, who also was promised a copy of Tuesday night’s election results, managed to catch Bodenhamer at election headquarters and asked if copies had been made, but the commissioner was unable to locate the records that Weaver had used to keep track of the election results on Tuesday evening.
The Observer submitted an official FOIA request to Weaver via email to obtain documentation of the unofficial results.
During an afternoon phone call with the Observer on Wednesday, Andres said the election data had been uploaded onto the commission’s laptop and that the original tally paperwork was stored in a desk at election headquarters. Anderson confirmed to the Observer that Bodenhamer looked inside the mentioned desk but found no documentation. It is unknown why printouts were not made immediately after uploading the election data into the laptop’s software.
The laptop is provided to the commission so that results can be loaded and tallied swiftly and then sent to officials. Major news outlets such as the Associated Press also use the election printouts from the laptop to report county results and call races during election night.
Andres promised to get copies of the printout to the county clerk’s office so that they could then be emailed out to those that requested them on Thursday morning.
On Thursday morning, the Observer reached out to the Baxter County Clerk’s Office and was told that no documentation for Tuesday night’s election had been turned over, nor had staff even seen any of the results.
When the Observer stopped by election headquarters again on Thursday’s rainy afternoon, both Republican commissioners again failed to turn over the requested documentation of the election results. When asked if the Observer could get a copy of Weaver’s handwritten tally sheet from election night, Weaver refused to turn it over, alluding to the paper tally’s inaccuracy due to some of the results being taken from personal notes of other media members the night of.
Weaver then apologized, and said she was prioritizing her personal life and health over her election duties and that she had to answer her emails prior to doing anything else but promised the documented election results to be delivered via email before she left the office for the day.
Before leaving, the Observer left three hard-copies of another FOIA request to be notified of all meetings of the election commission.
A copy of the summary report was finally presented to the Observer and other media a couple hours later in the afternoon.
While grace and patience is usually offered to new election commissioners when running their first election, it should be noted that the Ozark Patriots were highly critical of the county’s previous election commission.
During last year’s election, members of the Ozark Patriots staked out polling centers while looking for any discrepancy that they could find. Members of the political group were also highly critical of many of the mistakes made by former Republican Baxter County Election Commissioners Judy Garner and Gary Smith.
In February, the Patriots officially ousted the old Republican guard in the county, and installed Andres and Weaver as the party’s new election commissioners, to cheers in the crowd.
After being installed, changes to how elections would run in the county began to be planned. Some of the county’s long term polling centers were closed during early voting, leaving voters with only one location to cast their ballot in.
In addition to polling location changes, the newly formed election commission began making plans for a taxpayer funded hand recount and audit of the May 9 election. The decision to have the hand recount was suddenly announced at a Baxter County Republican Committee meeting, with no details being sent out to the press or public beforehand.
Weaver told the Observer that she would send out a press release with further details on the recount, but the “press release” was merely an email sent on May 1 with the following:
“The Election Commissioners along with the County Clerk will be conducting a full audit of the annual school election on Tuesday May 16th in the Baxter County Courthouse on the second floor in the courtroom. The audit will begin at 9:00 a.m and is open to the public.”
The issue of returning the county to paper ballots has been a publicly stated goal of the Ozark Patriots.
When asked why the commission was planning to hand recount an election that had not even occurred yet, Weaver stated in an email that, “The election commission is doing this to show that the equipment is counting the votes as voted by the citizens of Baxter County correctly. We also are looking to achieve a better understanding for ourselves, as well as for those on both sides of this issue to see what counting paper ballots would entail. This will also aid the commission to make better preparations for next year’s elections should the paper ballot issue be passed by the quorum court.”
A copy of the May 9 summary report can be found below.