LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday vetoed a package of bills meant to restructure the state board that oversees elections.
Together, the measures would make the state Board of Election Commissioners more, not less partisan, the governor said. He said he had received numerous communications from counties, election officials and election commissioners of all political persuasions urging him to veto Senate Bills 719-721.
"They see them, individually and collectively, as unwarranted attempts to undo a carefully crafted system of checks and balances and divisions of responsibility between the state Board of Election Commissioners, the secretary of state’s office and local election commissions," Beebe said in his veto letter. "Their objections to these bills are well taken."
Beebe announced the vetoes on the day the Legislature went into recess after a 100-day regular session.
"This doesn’t really surprise me. This governor continues to protect the status quo that has allowed election fraud and misconduct to happen here in Arkansas," said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, the sponsor of all three bills.
King said he planned to ask lawmakers to override the vetoes when they return May 17 to formally adjourn the 89th General Assembly.
Beebe, a Democrat, was unable to sustain a veto during the session, the first under Republican control in nearly 140 years. Both chambers voted to override gubernatorial vetoes of two bills restricting abortions and a third measure, sponsored by King, requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls.
SB 719 would shift to a proposed new Voter Integrity Unit the authority currently held by the state election board to investigate complaints of election irregularities or alleged violations of election law.
The new four-member panel would consist of four employees of the secretary of state’s office and would have broad powers to issue subpoenas, compel production of records and take sworn testimony. The panel would report its findings to the state board for further action.
Beebe said the measure would give a partisan-elected official "virtually unfettered investigative power and authority" over complaints against persons accused, sometimes by political rivals, of violating election laws, but makes no provision for investigating complaints that might related to the activities of the secretary of state, the office or someone running for the office.
He called the measure "a profoundly bad idea."
Beebe said Senate Bill 720, which would authorize the state election board to remove a county election commissioner for being unqualified under the law to serve or for failure to perform his or her duty under the law, is unwarranted because a procedure already is in place for the removal of members of county election boards by the county committees that elected them.
SB 721 would, effective July 1, terminate the current seven-member state election board and replace it with a nine-member board, increasing the number of members appointed by the political parties and altering the terms of some members.
The immediate effect, the governor said, would be to make the membership of the state election board more partisan.
"There is no evident need for a larger state board … and blatant attempts to skew the political balance of a board charged with overseeing partisan elections will only harm, not promote, the public’s confidence in the integrity of our state’s election process," Beebe said.
SB 719 and SB 720 each passed by wide margins in the Senate and by lesser but still comfortable margins in the House. SB 721 passed the Senate 26-8 but narrowly passed the House with two votes to spare, 53-16.
Overriding a gubernatorial veto in Arkansas requires a simple majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature.