The Arkansas House of Representatives voted to seat all of its members during the first day of the 2021 legislative session on Monday (Jan. 11) after House Republicans had considered not seating a Democrat who narrowly won a disputed election.
The vote to seat all members was 96-1 with two voting present. In a meeting Monday morning, the House GOP caucus voted on whether or not to block the seating of Rep.-elect Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, who represents District 32.
Hudson won a disputed race by 24 votes over former Rep. Jim Sorvillo, R-Little Rock. The count was 8,404-8,380. It was later revealed that 27 disputed ballots were mixed with another batch of ballots, which could have affected the final outcome.
Since the initial declaration of victory by Hudson, Sorvillo has filed lawsuits in circuit court, the Arkansas Supreme Court, and a petition with the Arkansas Claims Commission. None of those efforts have led to a change in the outcome of the certified results.
Republican incumbent Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, defeated his Democratic challenger, Matthew Stallings, by 16 votes in November. The vote in that election was 7,099-7,083. It was later determined that 36 disputed ballots from that district were mixed with a batch of other qualified ballots, but there has not been a legal challenge – or a possible controversy in the House – over seating Wing.
In the Arkansas House, Republicans hold a 78-22 advantage over Democrats. Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution gives the House power to seat its members, but this type of scenario has not been tested in modern times.
After the day started with questions about what would happen with Hudson, Secretary of State John Thurston announced the certified results of all the election winners. Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, made the motion to seat all 100 members. After the vote, Chief Justice Dan Kemp led the members in reciting the Oath of Office.
Rep. Gayla McKenzie, R-Gravette, voted no. Voting present were Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, and Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs. Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, did not vote.
The vote in the House came after a meeting of the House GOP caucus that morning where lawmakers were split on whether or not to seat Hudson, a source said. Sorvillo was present with his attorney. Bentley led the effort to deny Hudson the seat.
Supporters of denying Hudson the seat said a message had to be sent about voter fraud and election integrity. Opponents worried about the precedent it would set and the fairness of failing to seat Hudson while seating Wing. In fact, Wing reportedly brought up the idea that his own seat could be imperiled by the challenge.
UPDATE: Wing disputed that characterization of his comments, saying in an emailed statement, “This is absolutely not true. In fact, I addressed that question with exactly the opposite statement. Any vote taken by the caucus would in no way affect my seat. I made that clear. The decision of the caucus was made completely independent of my duly-elected position.”
Contacted a second time Jan. 12, the source for the original story did not dispute Wing’s response and said they might have misheard what Wing said.
An argument was made that Sorvillo might be able to keep his seat, or resign and create an open seat that would force another election. The source said the debate “wasn’t contentious or spirited. I think people actually tried to think logically through it.” Collectively, four different sources corroborated many of the events from the closed meeting.
During the meeting of the full House, Shepherd was elected speaker of the House, 99-0 and took the Oath of Office.
After a short speech, he announced Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, as assistant speaker pro tempore, while the assistant speakers are Reps. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge; Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey; Fred Allen, D-Little Rock; and Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne.
Shepherd also announced the following committee chairs and vice chairs:
• Joint Budget – Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, chair; Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, vice chair
• Arkansas Legislative Council – Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, chair; Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, vice chair
• Joint Auditing – Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, chair; Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, vice chair
Chairs of the Audit subcommittees are:
• Counties and Municipalities – Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra
• State Agencies – Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs
• Educational Institutions – Rep. Stan Berry, R-Dover
• Medicaid – Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona
For Standing committees, the chairs are:
• Education – Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, chair; Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, vice chair
• Judiciary – Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, chair; Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, vice chair
• Public Health, Welfare and Labor – Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, chair; Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis, vice chair
• Public Transportation – Rep. Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, chair; Rep. Danny Watson, R-Hope, vice chair
• Revenue and Taxation – Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, chair; Rep. Jack Fortner, R-Yellville, vice chair
• Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs – Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, chair; Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker, R-Smackover, vice chair
• Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development – Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, chair; Rep. Roger Lynch, R-Lonoke, vice chair
• City, County and Local Affairs – Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, chair; Rep. Milton Nicks, D-Marion, vice chair
• Insurance and Commerce – Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, chair; Rep. John Maddox, R-Mena, vice chair
• State Agencies and Governmental Affairs – Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, chair; Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, vice chair
• Rules – Rep. Les Eaves, R-Searcy, chair; Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, vice chair
• Management – Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, chair; Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, vice chair
• Joint Energy – Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, chair; Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, vice chair
• Joint Performance Review – Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, chair; Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, vice chair
• Joint Public Retirement & Social Security Programs – Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs, chair; Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, vice chair
• Joint Advanced Communications and Information Technology – Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, chair; Rep. Spencer Hawks, R-Conway, vice chair.