A lawsuit on behalf of three Arkansas voters against the Garland County Election Commission was filed late Tuesday afternoon, adding a dramatic twist to Tuesday's runoff between incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Governor Bill Halter for the Democratic Senate nomination.
The lawsuit, filed by Hot Springs attorney Ben Hooten, states that the commission intentionally scheduled only two polling sites for "the purpose of disenfranchising " minority, elderly, poor and disabled voters in the county. It also says that "the greater part of the voting electorate are unable to find or reach" the polling places and are "thereby deprived of their right to vote and were disenfranchised."
"They've tried this before," Hooten said in an interview with Politics Daily. "They tried it in 2008 and I fled suit then. It was a special election on bonds that year, but they closed all the polls citywide, but one."
The suit filed Tuesday asks the court to stop the certification of the votes and challenges the validity of the runoff election. Once votes are certified in Arkansas, 10 days after an election, it is almost impossible to challenge them.
The lawsuit may be the first in a string of possible protests in Garland County, a populous area 55 miles from Little Rock that both the Lincoln and Halter campaigns have focused on with get-out-the-vote efforts.
County election officials decided to open only two polling spots for Tuesday's runoff instead of the 41 precincts that were open for the May 18 primary. The action was to save money, the county election commissioner said, but the state pays for primary and runoff elections.
A notice was supposed to be mailed by the county clerk under the direction of the county election commission to registered voters within 15 days of the election. That did not happen in Garland County.
Traffic and parking problems earlier in the day led to police showing up to control the congestion at the downtown polling spot. That location, which is next to the election commission, had waits of up to 30 minutes in late afternoon. That was in contrast to precincts in Little Rock where voters walked in and cast their ballots in less than 10 minutes.
In the primary on May 18, Lincoln won 44.5 percent of the vote to Halter's 42.5 percent. A third candidate, D.C. Morrison, won 13 percent. In Garland County, Halter received 5,425 votes to Lincoln's 4,951 -- a difference of only 474.
The Arkansas Senate race has been one of the most watched in the country. Outside interest groups -- unions and progressive groups for Halter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and third party groups such as Americans for Job Security for Lincoln -- have spent millions on behalf of their respective candidates. The winner faces Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman in the general election.
If Tuesday night's results are narrow, Halter or Lincoln could call for a recount or file lawsuits. Three state runoff races and one Garland County runoff contest are also on the county ballot. Any of those candidates who loose by a thin margin could also file a court challenge to overturn the results.
According to the Secretary of State's office, Arkansas is one of the few remaining states to rely primarily on volunteers to administer elections that have become "increasingly time-consuming and technologically complex with the passage of federal mandates."
Last year, a bill was introduced in the legislature that would have required each county to hire an election coordinator. That bill was withdrawn because county officials were worried about tapping their budgets to pay for someone to oversee elections.
In Garland County, the commission is made is up of three people – the Democratic Party chair, the Republican Party county chair and a third member from the majority party – in this case, the Democratic Party.
The county does not have a paid election coordinator.
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