LITTLE ROCK — Bills to create a Voter Integrity Unit within the secretary of state’s office, make destroying a ballot a felony and require the state Board of Apportionment to explain its redistricting decisions cleared a House committee Wednesday.
A bill to require background checks for political candidates failed to get out of the committee, and the Senate later approved a bill add members to the state Board of Election Commissioners.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee gave a "do pass" recommendation to Senate Bill 719 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would create a four-person Voter Integrity Unit consisting of the director of the secretary of state’s elections division, the attorney for the secretary of state’s office, one employee of the elections division and one state capitol police officer.
The unit would investigate any complaint filed with the state Board of Election Commissioners alleging voter irregularities or fraud. The unit would have the authority to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and present evidence. It would refer allegations to a prosecutor or the state police.
King called the Board of Election Commissioners "a partisan appointee board" and said that currently, when something is reported to the board, "whatever party controls that board can choose to not look into it."
"For you Democrats, I want you to understand that this is a bipartisan approach, in that if Republicans control the Election Commission and they’re trying to cheat you out of an election or there’s irregularities that can’t be explained or there’s something wrong, you can have somebody actually come look into it," he said.
Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, said the members of the Board of Election Commissioners are appointed by different elected officials, ensuring that different views are represented, but giving the secretary of state authority over investigating voter fraud removes that varied perspective.
King said the secretary of state is elected by the people and is not a partisan appointee. He said his bill would cause incidents to be investigated that are not being investigated now.
The bill goes to the House.
The panel also endorsed and sent to the House two other bills by King: SB 961, which would make the destruction of ballot or ballot materials a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine; and SB 959, which would require the state Board of Apportionment to prepare a report explaining all the changes it makes when it redraws legislative district lines once every 10 years.
Also endorsed by the committee was SB 914 by Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, which would establish an Office of Medicaid Inspector General within the governor’s office.
The office would be charged with rooting out fraud in the government health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled. SB 914 also would create the new criminal offense of health care fraud.
The bill goes to the House.
In a 5-7 vote, the committee rejected SB 1029 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, which would require a candidate for political office to undergo a background check conducted by state police. The candidate would pay a $22 fee to cover the cost of the check.
Testifying in support of the bill, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said that if a background check were to find that a candidate had been convicted of a crime that would make him or her ineligible to seek public office, that information would be reported to the secretary of state and the attorney general, and the candidate would be notified that "you’re not running."
Testifying against the bill, Little Rock lawyer Dan Greenberg said the $22 fee would be burdensome for candidates and said any results of backgrounds checks should be available to the public, not just the secretary of state and attorney general.
"It’s of grave concern that we’re going to produce this enemies list for a couple of different public officials and we’re being told that they can take action if they want to," he said.
Ingram said later he was disappointed and was undecided whether he would bring the bill back before the House committee.
Later in the Senate, SB 721 passed 26-8. The bill, by King, would add two positions to the seven-member state election board. The two extra members both would be county clerks, one each appointed by the state Republican and Democratic parties.
It goes to the House.