Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) held a press conference at the capitol today to unveil three bills that are part of his legislative package. The bills focus on election reform including the absentee ballot process, the ballot-initiative petitions, and background checks for candidates.

“We have worked with Sen. Ingram and other legislators to craft legislation that addresses some of the most significant concerns facing our election process,” McDaniel said. “These bills would crack down on fraud on absentee ballots and at polling sites, ensure legitimacy in signature-gathering for initiatives and prevent convicted criminals from holding elective office. I am eager to work with the General Assembly to get these bills approved and improve transparency in our elections.”

“Democracy works best when the people trust that their vote is sacred and not compromised,” Ingram said. “These bills close some of the gaps in our election laws that have been taken advantage of in the past and provide tools to law enforcement to crack down on election rigging, while protecting legitimate voters. I am thankful for the support of the Attorney General and my co-sponsors on these bills to ensure that our elections are fair and transparent, and that our candidates have the integrity that Arkansans deserve.”

Ingram, a Democrat, along with Republican Rep. Mary Slinkard of Gravette on the House side are sponsors of SB 343, which seeks to prevent fraud in the absentee balloting process. The bill is currently in the process of being amended to address several concerns raised by some legislators and the Secretary of State’s office. Primarily, it will add more scrutiny to absentee ballots returned to the county clerk by someone other than the voter.

Interestingly, Ingram said part of the bill would require the voter to provide proof of identification to obtain an absentee ballot. Voter ID has been a point of contention in this year’s legislative session. McDaniel declined to comment on Sen. Bryan King’s bill to require all voters to show photo identification, not just absentee voters.

The second bill – SB 821 – would make it a Class D felony to knowingly sign a fictitious name or someone else’s name on a petition to get a measure on the ballot. Paid canvassers will be required to register with the Secretary of State’s office and receive training on the initiative process. Canvassers would also be committing felony petition fraud if they provide compensation to someone in exchange for a signature.

In addition, SB 821 would add additional reporting requirements to ballot measure committees to make their reporting requirements more closely resemble the requirements for candidates.

A third bill – SB 822 – would require candidates for any elective office in Arkansas – including at the state, county, and municipal levels – to first undergo a criminal background check to be conducted by the State Police.

Candidates would sign a waiver agreeing to the background check when they filed for office, similar to waiver’s employees applicants are often required to sign. The State Police would provide the results of the background check to the Secretary of State, who would then inform the candidate whether or not they were potentially unqualified to hold public office due to a previous criminal conviction.

If the candidate chooses not to withdraw his or her candidacy and is elected to office, the candidate would face a penalty of up to $25,000 if removed from office because of his or her ineligibility.

It was notable that the press conference was made up primarily of Democratic Senators and Representatives. Rep. Slinkard was the only Republican in attendance. Republican Sen. Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot has signed on to the ballot initiative bill, but said he is not yet sure about the other two and wants to see the final version of the other two bills.

All three bills are currently referred to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Talk Business blogger Jason Tolbert contributed to this report and attended today’s press conference.  He has posted these two videos of the event.

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