story by Ryan Saylor
The Sebastian County Election Commission voted Thursday (Feb. 27) to consolidate several polling sites throughout the county. The consolidation of sites will impact 7,172 registered voters from Fort Smith, Barling and New Providence precincts.
According to Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb the moves were necessary to save the taxpayers money.
"We're going to save enough (money) to do our off-site early voting site, which is somewhere around the $13,000 range," Webb said, adding the the figure was for both the 2014 primary and general elections.
Many of the precincts to be consolidated were within close proximity of each other, such as WestArk Church of Christ and Grand Avenue Baptist Church, with Grand Avenue absorbing WestArk's 1,241 voters. Due to the close proximities, Webb said most affected voters should not see much more time added to their distance to vote.
One location, Haven Heights Baptist Church, was consolidated with the Southside Senior Center as a matter of saving money and following the law.
"The most contentious one was the Haven Heights, and we had to fix that issue because by statute, we only get one polling site per precinct and we've probably been in (violation of) those statutes and just had never caught it. So basically, it would have got corrected if we didn't vote on anything else. Either it or the senior center … would have been closed."
County Clerk Sharon Brooks said voters in the affected precincts will be informed of the changes before the May 20 primary election.
"As soon as they (the Election Commission) get the information to us on what they closed, who they're moving — once that information is given to us, then we will send the changes out," she said.
With the election only eight weeks away, Brooks said the Commission will have to move quickly to officially notify her office of the changes.
"You can't make any changes 30 days prior to any elections," she added.
The Commission also approved the opening of an off-site early polling location to be located at the Dallas Street Library in Fort Smith. According to Webb, the site will cost the Commission $12,967 each year to operate.
The site is in addition to early voting that Brooks said will continue at the Fort Smith and Greenwood courthouses. Webb said adding the early voting site will better serve residents in eastern Fort Smith.
"The benefit of off-site early voting at this location (is) it provides an alternative to early voting in the highest turnout area of our city," he said. "East Fort Smith, historically, has been the highest turnout and hopefully, the goal is to improve convenience to the voter and improve accessibility to the voter. It saves them either a long trip to Greenwood or downtown (Fort Smith)."
Brooks said the hours for early voting are set by the Arkansas Secretary of State's office and will be Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the two weeks prior to the election. There has been no date set for when the third early polling site will first be used, though Webb said it would be during one of the elections to be held in 2014.
In other business, the Commission received an Attorney General's opinion which states absentee ballots much have a submitted copy of an approved photo identification card in order to be counted in an election.
Webb said Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, had requested the opinion after there was confusion on new state laws and after the Secretary of State's office had directed election commissions across the state to treat absentee ballots without a submitted copy of a photo ID as provisional ballots, although the law did not direct such action.
The Sebastian Pulaski County Election Commissions had sought guidance on the law through requests by their local representatives in the General Assembly.
With the newly issued opinion, the Commission moved to not count absentee ballots that do not include the required copy of a photo ID card.