LITTLE ROCK — Attorney General Dustin McDaniel unveiled a package of legislation Thursday intended to improve the state’s election process.
The measures would toughen penalties for fraudulently gathering signatures for ballot measures, require more disclosures from the people working on ballot question campaigns and require criminal background checks on all candidates for elective office.
"The aim is to reform our election system and to bring more transparency to voters and the public at-large," McDaniel said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
The measures are in response to problems brought to light in 2012 by the resignation of state Rep. Hudson Hallum, a Democrat from Marion who pleaded guilty to a federal voter fraud charge related to absentee ballots in a 2011 special election, and by irregularities in signature gathering for citizen initiatives proposed for the general election ballot.
Senate Bill 343 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, would change the way absentee ballots are obtained and submitted.
"This bill adds an important layer of accountability to the absentee balloting process and it ensures the integrity of the integrity of the voter and ballot are not compromised," McDaniel said.
Under the bill, absentee voters would be required to personally seal their envelopes, which McDaniel said would prevent the possibility of the person carrying the ballot to the courthouse changing the vote.
Those who assist absentee voters in casting their ballot would be required to pledge not to influence the votes and would be limited to assisting six voters. The bill also adds stricter rules for county clerks on accounting for absentee ballots and stipulates that candidates would be limited to assisting only a spouse or other close relative at a polling site.
In September, Hallum, his father, Kent Hallum, and two West Memphis city officials pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit election fraud in the first known use of the federal Travel Act to bring charges for vote-buying in a purely local election, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
The federal indictment accused the men of helping voters fill out absentee ballots then mailing absentee votes for Hudson Hallum to the Crittenden County Clerk’s office. The indictment said the four also admitted some absentee voters received $20 or free meals in exchange for their vote.
The second election reform measure, Senate Bill 821, also filed by Ingram, 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. A Class D felony conviction is punishable by up to six years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
The measure also would require paid canvassers to register with the secretary of state’s office and receive training on the initiative process. Canvassers also could be charged with petition fraud, a felony, under the bill if they pay someone for his or her signature.
The third election reform measure, SB 822, also by Ingram, would require any committee or person raising or spending $500 or more on a ballot initiative to file a financial report, which includes the name a occupation of each person who contributed $50 or more.
Payments to canvassers, officers and directors of a committee also would have to be disclosed on financial reports, along with money spent on advertising, direct mail, travel, office supplies and other expenses.
The final piece of the election reform package, House Bill 1553 by Rep. Fredrick Love, D-Little Rock, would require would-be candidates for any office to first undergo a criminal background check conducted by the state police.
The potential candidate would have to pay a $20 fee for the background check, and the results would be provided to the secretary of state’s office, which would then inform the perspective candidate whether he or she was potentially unqualified to hold public office.
If the background check revealed something that could potentially disqualify the person but the person chose to run anyway, and was elected, he or she could face a penalty of up to $25,000 if removed from office because of his or her ineligibility.
HB 1553 is on the Friday agenda of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Ingram said the measure are designed to not only improve the election process but assure people that the process works.
"This legislation has been five months in the making," Ingram said. "These bills will give law enforcement additional tools to crackdown on vote tampering. This cuts across party lines. We have sponsors and co-sponsors that are on both sides of the aisles. I think we recognize there is a problem and I think we are making a very bold statement in trying to fix it."