Voting Absentee? Request Your Ballot Now 

By John C. Davis

COVID-19 has altered the way we conduct many aspects of our lives. For many, voting will be different this year and will require a bit more planning. For those interested in voting absentee, whether due to the pandemic or another qualified reason, now is the time to request your ballot.

You might recall that in March, Governor Hutchinson issued an Executive Order which, among other things, temporarily waived the state requirement that a voter provide a qualified excuse to request an absentee ballot. The logic, at the time, was that it was not clear whether fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19 would be a permissible excuse in order to vote absentee and the temporary waiver would permit anyone to vote absentee in the spring’s primary runoff elections. The Executive Order has since expired, but many, including myself, advocated for the need to waive the excuse requirement for the 2020 General Election. After a couple months of uncertainty regarding the issue, we now know COVID-19 is a valid reason to request and obtain an absentee ballot. About a month ago, Secretary of State John Thurston issued a statement citing his position that COVID-19 was a qualified excuse. Shortly after, Governor Hutchinson, announced his support for the interpretation alongside Doyle Webb, Chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party and Michael John Gray, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. Whether voters prefer to vote absentee or in person in the upcoming election is their choice, as it should be. However, the Secretary of State and Governor’s interpretation grant Arkansans the choice to vote absentee, and that is to be commended.

Your County Clerk will now accept your request for an absentee ballot. If you plan to vote absentee in the 2020 General Election, I recommend you call your County Clerk today to begin the process of requesting your ballot. By acting now, you will be helping the Clerk appraise the level of demand for absentee ballots, make necessary adjustments and allocate resources. By all indications, we should expect a significant increase in absentee ballot voting in Arkansas and across the US as voters seek ways to carry out their civic responsibility in the safest way possible. Once requested, the Clerk will send you a form to complete and return. You will then receive your ballot closer to election time. Voting absentee is a different process from voting in person but it is a secure and proven voting method. However, you must be proactive and carefully follow the instructions.

To avoid mail delays, be sure to mail or drop off your completed absentee ballot as soon as possible. Don’t wait until November. I’ve read that the best deadline to give yourself is two weeks prior to Election Day (say, October 20) in order to not bog down the USPS and result in your ballot arriving at the Clerk’s office after Election Day. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your County Clerk’s office, who I am sure will be happy to walk you through the process.

Whether you intend to vote absentee, early, or in-person on Election Day, be safe, take care of others, and let your voice be heard!

Public Opinion Polling: A (Very) Brief Introduction For the Casual Observer

By John C. Davis

Earlier, I wrote about the results of a recent Talk Business and Politics/Hendrix College poll. Upon completing the piece, it occurred to me that it might be helpful if I shared some basic tips on how to evaluate polling results. While brief, and lacking attention to mathematical elements of scientific polling, the following is not unlike what I might say to my Introduction to American National Government students when giving them a very broad, brief description on polls and polling results.

  1. Be aware that a poll, much like a picture from a camera, gives you a snapshot in time. While some public opinion topics remain relatively stable over long periods of time, others are more susceptible to change. In other words, it is best to assume that polling results have a limited shelf life.
  2. Know the source of the poll. Often, we encounter news coverage on a poll conducted by someone other than the person or persons who conducted the survey. That is perfectly normal. However, if the source is not readily available in the article in which the survey is reported, that should raise a red flag.
  3. Ask yourself, “what is the poll measuring?” For example, national polls reporting on the presidential race are interesting, exciting to some of us, and can be useful when comparing over time, but are not a reflection of the way in which we elect the president and are thereby particularly limited in their utility. Recall, in 2016, when people criticized polls and those who conducted them? Most often, the problem was not with the pollsters or with their methods, but with the way in which their results were reported and interpreted. A national poll might indicate one presidential candidate leading if, say, the election was held on that day and the votes were tallied by popular vote (in the case of 2016, the national polls often favored Clinton who did, in fact, win the popular vote). However, in the case of presidential selection, state polls—particularly in “toss up” or “battleground” states are most useful in evaluating where the candidates are stronger or weaker and better reflect the way in which Electoral College votes are awarded. Context matters.
  4. Be aware of “push polls” conducted in such a way to coax a certain answer from a respondent. If the questions asked are not easily accessible in the story or at least in a link, this should set off alarm bells.
  5. Review the sample size and, if available, demographic breakdown of those polled. Polling samples are usually determined by two factors: mathematical precision and cost. Properly conducted polls are expensive and get more costly as sample size increases. However, to reduce sampling error, mathematically, the larger the sample the better. Also, the demographics of those polled must also be taken into consideration. For example, if I were to conduct a poll to measure the support of an upcoming ballot question in Arkansas among likely voters, I would need a sample size of several hundred Arkansans, I would need to determine that they were likely voters (trickier than it may sound), and the collection of people I am polling would need to adequately represent the demographic breakdown of likely voters in the state, in order for me to expect my results are valid.
  6. Review the margin of error. The margin of error, also known as the confidence interval, is the result of a mathematical equation based on the size of the sample. The margin of error should be reported with the polling results and, if nothing else, serve as a reminder that polls are estimates and are never intended to be 100% accurate 100% of the time.
  7. Finally, consider the polling method and don’t waste your time on convenience polls (polls conducted among friends or others you follow on Facebook and Twitter come to mind). To be fair, technological advances and a significant drop in the use of landline phones are revolutionizing the way in which surveys are being conducted and I no longer write off any method of contact for obtaining a sample. However, I am leery of landline only polls (there is nothing wrong with having a landline phone, but how many people under the age of 35 do you know who own one?) and most online polling methods. I am becoming more comfortable with other means such as cell phone polling and text polling (when people won’t answer an unfamiliar number on their cell phone) if done by a reputable group.

This list is merely a basic introduction into public opinion polls intended to help you as we approach the 2020 general election campaign season. Have a more specific question? Email me.

Poll Reveals Early Frustration Among Independents

By John C. Davis

As Arkansas continues to struggle through the COVID-19 health crisis and subsequent economic recession, Arkansans’ views on the job performances of some of its most notable leaders are worth reflecting upon. Last week, the results of a poll conducted by Arkansas Talk Business and Politics and Hendrix College were released. The findings from the poll—conducted by a reputable operation with sound methodology and a solid track record—found that Governor Hutchinson’s overall job approval was at an impressive 62% overall with self-reported independents approving of his performance by a 64% to 20% margin—reflecting approval of his balanced approach to enacting safety measures amid the pandemic while also keeping the Arkansas economy afloat.

The largely positive impression among survey respondents for Hutchinson, a Republican, was overshadowed by the surprisingly low marks Republicans President Trump and Senator Cotton received. While partisan identifiers in the poll did what we’d expect them to do—Republicans polled expressed considerable approval for their co-partisans while Democrats expressed disapproval of the job performances of Trump and Cotton—it was the majority of independents in the sample who disapproved of both men that caught my attention. Among independents, when asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job of Donald Trump as President?” 46% approved, 50% disapproved, and 4% were unsure. Likewise, when asked the same question regarding the job performance of Senator Tom Cotton, 44% of independents approved, 47% of independents disapproved, and 9% were unsure. In short, both Trump and Cotton were “under water”—garnering support from fewer than half of the independents polled.

A poll such as this, conducted months out from an election, tells us what people think at the present time and cannot be used to predict electoral outcomes. If similar results from an equally reputable poll in Arkansas emerge in, say, October, alarm bells would certainly be going off among candidates and their campaigns. However, in June, it is a whole other matter. So…why does this matter? Well, over the last few election cycles, Arkansas has undergone one of the swiftest partisan shifts in modern U.S. history—from one of the most reliably Democratic strongholds to solidly Republican. As recently as 2010, state constitutional offices, the U.S. Congressional and Senate delegations, and both chambers in the General Assembly were majority Democratic. Today, Republicans dominate election cycles in the Natural State. However, this poll indicates President Trump is within the margin of error—essentially tied—with the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden in a state Donald Trump carried by 27 points in 2016. That’s right, twenty-seven. Equally surprising is the poll finding that Senator Cotton, a first-term senator who regularly is named as a potential prospect for a cabinet position within Trump’s administration or an eventual presidential candidate received unfavorable marks from independents in his state.

What does it all mean? My best guess: President Trump is still very popular among GOP faithful in Arkansas and, in my opinion, still the favorite to claim the state’s 6 Electoral College votes in November. This poll tells me that, at this very early stage in the election season (recall, President Trump nor his opponent have even been officially nominated by their respective parties) Trump’s advantage in Arkansas is softer than I would have imagined. However, I do not see a great deal of movement between Republican approval or Democratic disapproval of President Trump and anticipate a significant portion of the state’s “independents” to shift toward Trump’s camp come November. He likely wins Arkansas although with a smaller margin in 2020 than in 2016.

Senator Cotton’s relatively poor showing in the poll may be in part indicative of his high visibility on national media outlets and his vocal support for many of President Trump’s positions. Normally, I do not think his close alignment to many—although not all—Trump Administration initiatives would hurt the junior senator back home. However, given the global pandemic, the recession, and the recent downward trend of President Trump’s approval numbers in leading national polls such as Gallup, it appears Senator Cotton is caught in the wake of a momentary expression of frustration by a portion of Arkansas voters. However, he has little reason to be concerned about his chances for re-election in the fall. Senator Cotton’s only opposition on the 2020 ballot will be a Libertarian candidate, Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. and Dan Whitfield, who is campaigning as an independent. Senator Cotton has a significant advantage in fundraising, he is an up and comer in his party, and Arkansas is poised to remain a strong GOP state in 2020.

Six Years Later: Senator Cotton’s Re-election

By John C. Davis

What a difference six years can make. In 2014, Tom Cotton, then a Republican U.S. Representative, ran against Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, a two-term incumbent, former Arkansas Attorney General and son to one of Arkansas’s most prominent public officials in the 20th Century—former U.S. House of Representative, Governor, and U.S. Senator David Pryor. Given the strategic importance of the seat to Democrats seeking to hold their majority in the U.S. Senate, and the remarkable fundraising networks of both candidates, this was an incredibly expensive race for a relatively small-population state. Early on, the contest was not a forgone conclusion, though all indications were that it would be a tough seat for Democrats to hold. Mark Pryor was first elected in to the U.S. Senate in 2002 after defeating incumbent Tim Hutchinson—the first GOP Senator popularly elected in Arkansas. Pryor shared the last name of another highly regarded former public servant, enjoyed the support of Arkansans in two past Senate contests—in 2002 and in 2008 (when a Republican candidate didn’t even file to run against him). However, in 2014, Pryor faced a formidable opponent, an Arkansas native, military veteran with an ivy league pedigree and a particularly strong following among conservative academic circles and national thought leaders.

The end result of this particularly heated race, which featured an unprecedented barrage of campaign dollars going to ad buys from both sides, was a victory for Tom Cotton over Mark Pryor, 56.5% to 39.4%. A solid victory for Tom Cotton and Republicans, who had only very recently begun to make significant gains in one of the last Southern states to remain a Democratic stronghold into the 21st Century.

The race in 2014 was significant in many ways. First, nationally, it resulted in another GOP victory in an election cycle where they would claim the U.S. Senate majority. Symbolically, the win was particularly sweet for Republicans as, up to that point, this Senate seat had been one of only a few in the South held by a Democratic incumbent. Back in Arkansas, this contest served, as it would turn out, as the final match for the political balance of the state. The casual observer might forget, but only a few years earlier, Democrats could claim the Governorship, majorities in both the state’s House and Senate (chambers that had remained under Democratic control since Reconstruction), three out of four U.S. House of Representatives, and both U.S. Senators. Even after Republican gains in 2010, Arkansas remained largely Democratic. Following election night 2014, however, Republicans would claim the Governor’s Mansion, both U.S. Senate seats, and all four U.S. House seats, expanded majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, and all other state constitutional offices—a breathtaking shift in partisan preference in Arkansas on display.

Cotton’s re-election bid in 2020 is a stark reminder of the dramatic partisan shift in Arkansas, the remarkable strength of the Republican brand in the state, and a state Democratic Party in disarray. Recall from earlier, in 2008, the incumbent Democratic candidate for re-election to the same U.S. Senate seat faced no GOP opposition. Now, in 2020, Senator Cotton will face no major party opponent and, thus, likely enjoy a similar stroll to re-election.

Today, Cotton is one of the most visible and polarizing Senators in the country. A regular on national news programs, the junior senator from Arkansas recently penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times advocating for the use of the military to address the civil unrest arising after the killing of George Floyd. Regardless of one’s views on the use of military force on civilians, the opinion piece—and the debate and attention it garnered—is another reminder of Senator Cotton’s ascendance among Republican ranks and his growing public profile among GOP supporters.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Arkansas don’t have a candidate to challenge him in November. After enthusiastically campaigning for months, Joshua Mahony filed to run against Senator Cotton as a Democrat, only to drop out moments after filing ended—effectively preventing his party from finding another candidate to compete in his place. At the time of Mahony’s shocking departure from the race, the former candidate cited health issues within his family as the reason for dropping out. However, reporting from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette led to speculation of other, campaign-related reasons for his dropping out. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains, that Senator Cotton now faces no major party opponent in 2020—a very different environment than he found himself in 2014.

Then again, politically, Arkansas is a very different environment today than it was just a few election cycles ago.

 

Voting in the Age of COVID-19

By John C. Davis

In the age of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we must attempt to acclimate our lives around a new, temporary, normality and work together to ensure our civic institutions remain intact in this time of crisis. As a grandson, son, husband, and father, my primary and immediate concern is for the health and safety of loved ones and strangers alike. As a political scientist, I am also very concerned about the potential impact the novel coronavirus,—COVID-19—might have on elections in November.

Arkansans must now begin to plan for the upcoming elections to ensure that they are conducted in a way that is safe and accessible. We’ve already seen this highly contagious virus compel states and territories to alter elections. As of March 24th, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico have postponed elections planned for this spring in order to protect their residents and prevent further spread. While these measures, in my opinion, are responsible steps that align well with current guidelines by health experts to minimize outings and maintain social distancing, the practice of postponing primary elections should not and cannot tempt us into allowing our general elections in the fall to undergo significant alteration or force us to adopt untested means by which to facilitate voting. Nor can we assume everything will return to normal by fall. The prospect of COVID-19 forcing states to reschedule or significantly alter elections with unknown effects to turnout or accessibility, of any type, even in a time of extraordinary challenges, should concern us all. At the same time, we cannot ignore the very real threat to public safety that having traditional voting at polling sites poses.

The coming months will test our ability—as a nation and state—to mobilize efforts to ensure the most vital tool of the democratic experiment is not blunted by our current situation or by our inability to adapt and persevere. Therein lies our puzzle. We will need to adapt and innovate while being mindful to do so in such a way that does not drastically alter our elections or negatively impact a voter’s ability to cast a ballot. Much like the response to the current health and economic crises, the comprehensive solution to the civic problem we will soon face will require multiple levels of government accepting their respective roles and taking responsibility for that which they are able to control. In our federalist governmental structure—a system of government stemming from a multi- layered interplay between national, state, county, and local governments and jurisdictions—elections are largely regulated and facilitated at the state and local levels in the United States. That means that, while assistance in the way of funds and collaboration from the U.S. government might be needed, our focus should be on Arkansas’s capacity to be responsive and capable of conducting elections in the time of an unprecedented health emergency.

Fortunately, Arkansas already has a proven mechanism in place that allows us to significantly reduce social interaction and conduct our most sacred civic practice—absentee voting. Absentee voting is facilitated by mail. Additionally, thanks to federalism, we can also study and learn from other states’ practices to inform our steps, moving forward. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states have some mechanism in place to permit absentee voting by mail. Approximately two-thirds of states allow registered voters the opportunity to vote absentee without giving a qualified reason or seeking a permissible excuse, while roughly one-third—including Arkansas—requires the voter to provide a reason for seeking to vote by mail. According to a Supreme Court of Arkansas case, Forrest v. Baker (1985), qualified excuses include anticipating the inability to get to a designated polling place before it closes, work schedule conflicts, and “sickness in the family” are among the permissible reasons to request an absentee ballot in Arkansas. This means what, while Arkansas requires voters give a proper reason to absentee vote—or vote by mail—a great many states already allow their voting residents the opportunity without citing a permissible reason for doing so. In short, Arkansas could rest assured that—should we seek to permit absentee voting free of such a restriction temporarily—many states already consider this a standard practice and see very few issues arise from the voting method.

The state justification requirement, in our current time of health crisis, is too cumbersome and time is of the essence. However, the remedy to permanently alter the state’s absentee voting justification requirement would require, at the least, a change to the state code and perhaps a constitutional amendment, the state would need an emergency order to carry out this temporary alteration to our elections.

Unfortunately, absentee voting has become something of a political football as of late. This is very unfortunate. Recently, a bi-partisan attempt by some members of the General Assembly to permit no excuse absentee voting in Arkansas for the November elections was voted down.

There is a solution, however. Governor Hutchinson’s recently issued Executive Order 20-08 suspends temporarily some provisions of election laws. The governor’s order removes the requirement for a voter to present an excuse and permits counties to reduce their number of physical polling sites to one—encouraging voters to continue to practice social distancing and avoid groups by voting via absentee ballot. While this order was directed at the immediate situation faced with imminent primary run-off elections in certain parts of the state, this portion of his order could simply be maintained until November or ordered again as we get closer to the general election.

Considering that it already exists in Arkansas and is likely going to be requested by more voters in the Natural State this upcoming election cycle than ever before anyway, absentee voting would be the most sensible near outright, temporary replacement for in-person voting to address the health concerns associated with lining up in a cramped polling place, sharing ink pens, paper, and equipment (touch screens) for the November elections. This is the most sensible solution to this temporary problem: a less restrictive process for obtaining an absentee ballot and a robust effort to distribute and process mail in ballots at an unprecedented scale.

What would it take for the state to meet unprecedented demand for absentee voting in November? A shared desire to see our elections continue uninterrupted and conducted in such a way so as not to further risk the spread of COVID-19 from voters and public officials. Further, we would need to be willing to act fast and accomplish our objective without a statutory change or constitutional amendment and provide resources where needed to maintain electoral integrity. For Arkansas to ensure voting occurs safely in November, in a manner that limits the spread of COVID-19, and is accessible to all voters, we must support another Emergency Order from Governor Hutchinson—or a continuation of the presently enacted one. Also, we must ensure Secretary of State John Thurston, his staff, and all county and local elections officials have the funds and resources necessary to aggressively implement a persistent information campaign, print an absentee ballot for each voter, and accurately count and report results in a timely manner.

Given the human and economic toll of COVID-19, the issue posed here is likely not in the minds of many today. However, it is vitally important that planning begin now to ensure the necessary changes to our voting procedures and the requisite means are in place long before Tuesday, November

3rd. Fortunately, we need not reinvent the wheel in order to carry out our chief civic responsibility in the age of a global pandemic. The solution already exists in the form of absentee voting, albeit in a broader application at an unprecedented scale for our state, and the emergency powers of Governor Hutchinson.

This is a serious problem with a practical, pragmatic solution. It’s up to us to take on the challenge. As a scholar of Arkansas politics and policy, and a native of the Natural State, I am optimistic that we are all up to the task.

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Talk Business/Hendrix Poll Suggests Bloomberg Surge, No Clear Democratic Presidential Favorite in Arkansas

By John C. Davis

The Arkansas Preferential Primary Election and Nonpartisan General Election will be held on March 3rd (with early voting beginning on February 18th).

According to the most recently released Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College Poll, The poll asked 496 likely Arkansas Democratic primary voters who they preferred in the upcoming primary election. According to the results of the poll, Democrats in the state are virtually split between former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (19.6%), former Vice President Joe Biden (18.5%), U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders (16.4%), and former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (15.5%).

While Bloomberg’s rise in both national and statewide polls is noteworthy, the results of this poll are not so much telling us who is most favored, but how tight the field of candidates currently remains (the margin for error in the poll is +/- 4.3%) and how fluid preferences are (with 11% of respondents stating that they are undecided). Furthermore, 2% of those polled indicated a preference for Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has since dropped out of the race.

Yang’s departure from the field is a reminder to political observers that the field of candidates continues to winnow and may become smaller still, prior to March 3rd. Given the timing of the poll (conducted on February 6-7), I expect to see considerable movement in Arkansans Democrats’ preferences between now and March 3rd as observers continue to consume media coverage of last night’s New Hampshire Primary results and will soon watch returns from Nevada and South Carolina.

Each candidate is seeking to claim what George H.W. Bush once called “the ‘big Mo’” whereby a candidate capitalizes on favorable caucus and/or primary results, creating a media narrative that he or she has become the front-runner. To date, one day after the New Hampshire Primary, we have not yet seen momentum clearly advantage anyone in the field of candidates. However, it is becoming clearer that Biden and Warren—once considered favorites for the nomination—are failing to meet expectations at the polls. On March 3rd, Arkansas will be one of several states who have opted to hold their primary on “Super Tuesday.” Following this multi-state coordinated primary date, we can expect significant winnowing of the field of candidates. Who will remain in the race after March 3rd, at this point, is anyone’s guess.

Drew County 1-Cent Sales & Use Tax Discussed at The SEARK Political Animals Club

By John C. Davis

February 3, 2020

The first meeting of the year for the Southeast Arkansas Political Animals Club was called to order on Monday. The featured speaker was Charlie Searcy, Drew County Treasurer. The topic of discussion was the upcoming special election regarding a reinstatement of a one-cent Drew County sales and use tax for the development and maintenance of county roads.

Originally passed by voters in 1996, the tax had previously been renewed by the public every six years until this past summer. At that time, the latest renewal question failed on the ballot by a mere 14 votes, 187 to 173. At the meeting, the County Treasurer said during his presentation, that he and other county officials “take blame” for the low turnout and overall result of last summer’s special election as the issue was not often publicly discussed.

The one-cent sales tax, according to Searcy, had generated over $14 million for Drew County roads or roughly $2.3 million per year since he took office in 2013. He estimated approximately 40% of the revenue generated from the tax comes from individuals outside of Drew County from their in-county consumer purchases. The Treasurer also pointed out that Drew County had 362 miles of road with 135 unpaved and 227 paved.

The special election is scheduled for February 11 with early voting beginning on February 4th. This election will feature new voting equipment and be the first since the Drew County Election Commission voted to consolidate polling locations–closing some rural voting sites and permitting voters to attend any of the remaining “voting centers” regardless of the precinct to which they have been previously assigned. More on this later…..

A Late, Brief Recap Of The 2018 Mid Term Election Early Voting Numbers in Arkansas

By John C. Davis

Traditionally, midterm elections see a decrease in turnout from that of presidential election years. These “off year” races, despite the relative lack of voter interest historically, are incredibly important. If you compare Arkansas midterm early voting numbers overtime, you find a considerable increase. In fact, the 2018 early vote total in Arkansas increased from 2014, a record year.

Nationally, our most recent midterm election saw significant shifts in leadership in Congress, as Democrats won the majority of seats in a midterm for the first time since 2006, and Republicans maintained control of the Senate. At the state level, Republicans fared much better. All four of Arkansas’ U.S. House of Representatives were re-elected and all are Republicans. At the state level, all victorious constitutional offices remained in Republican hands as did majorities in the state legislature. Election night did not go without some surprises at the state-level, however, with a few legislative incumbents losing their re-election bids. Northwest Arkansas Republican Charlie Collins lost to Denis Garner, a Democrat, and Michael John Gray, incumbent legislator and Democratic Party of Arkansas chairperson, lost his re-election bid to a Republican challenger.

My wife and I were blessed with our second child on December 3rd and, thus, I am more than a little behind with my number crunching of elections data. However, there are interesting (if not late) data to review. This graphic depicts the early vote turnout patterns for Drew County, Arkansas. drew county early votingWe see something resembling an inverted “bell curve” as the first and final days of early voting appear to have been the busiest early voting days in the county.

On The Passing Of George H. W. Bush

By John C. Davis

George_H._W._Bush,_President_of_the_United_States,_1989_official_portraitThis morning, we learned of the passing of a legendary figure in our country and one of the most significant figures in the 20th Century; George H. W. Bush. President Bush answered every time the country asked him to serve as a veteran and war hero in World War II, a member of Congress, CIA Director, Vice President, and President. A family man, he remained married to his wife for 73 years, until her passing this past spring.

George H. W. Bush was a lifelong public servant and the type of political figure we seek out in our wiser moments as an electorate. While his list of accomplishments extends decades, perhaps his most significant public achievement was serving as a steady hand who steered the nation’s course during the fall of the Soviet Union. After losing his re-election bid for President to Bill Clinton in 1992, we saw a partisan politician who graciously accepted defeat as humbly as he had claimed victory. An optimistic and selfless leader, he held power reluctantly and only did so to try to do right. We need more like him. I pray that we have more like him. Thank you and rest in peace, GHWB.

Is It Time To Rethink Judicial Selection In Arkansas?

By John C. Davis

Over the course of the last campaign season, Arkansans witnessed a race with very negative ads, funded largely by out of state groups, making accusations of unethical behavior. Newspapers columns and Letters to the Editor were filed discussing the bitterness of this political contest. The stakes were high as voters would determine who would serve in the important state elected position. In the race, we saw an incumbent—seen by many to be a clear early front-runner with considerable statewide campaign experienceAR Court Seal —facing a bold challenger with strong support from like-minded, well-funded, ideological groups and voters alike. You might ask yourself, “Which race is he referencing? The race for Governor? One of the races for U.S. House of Representatives? Or maybe the tight three-way race for Mayor of our state’s capital city?”

Nope. I am referring to yet another ugly political battle for a seat on our state’s highest court.

Voters in the Natural State have elected judges for a very long time. Since 2000, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to remove partisanship from judicial races, these electoral contests have been nonpartisan. Arkansans generally like playing an active role in deciding who will fill these important positions. However, recent events lead me to expect more discussion from lawmakers, and voters alike, concerning whether or not reforms are needed to maintain the public’s esteem for the court.

This year’s judicial race, for one of the Court’s Associate Justice seats pitted an incumbent member of the bench, Courtney Goodson against Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling. The race was actually a run-off from last spring’s primary and non-partisan judicial election. The contest was particularly negative in tone as at least one prominent outside group, The Judicial Crisis Network, spent well over a million dollars broadcasting advertisements against Associate Justice Goodson. The group(s) that provided the financial backing for these ads are often referred to as “dark money” organizations because such entities do not have to disclose their donors. In all fairness, another characteristic of these groups is that they cannot coordinate with a campaign, so these ads were not directly coming from David Sterling or his campaign team. While negative campaigning is not new to Arkansas politics, we had grown accustomed to relatively civil races for the judicial positions. Only recently has the negativity that so often plagues other electoral contests founds its way into these particular campaigns. Regardless of who you favored for these races, most of us see the need for our judicial system to operate above the fray of petty politics and close observers of the court often acknowledge the importance and value of this governmental branch maintaining such a public perception.

Out of concern for the possibility of a tarnished perception brought onto the court by the increased role of money and politics, some have proposed different methods for selecting our state’s highest court’s judges. In previous meetings of the Arkansas General Assembly, legislation to alter judicial selection has been authored and submitted but failed to garner significant support. A few years ago, Representative Matthew Shepherd, a Republican from El Dorado who will serve as the Speaker of the House for the 2019-2020 Arkansas General Assembly, submitted legislation that would have begun the process of shifting from popular election of Supreme Court justice positions to an alternative form of judicial selection.  More recently, Governor Asa Hutchinson expressed support for a system of judicial selection similar to what has become commonly referred to as the “Missouri Plan.”  Under this method, a vacancy on the court is filled by the governor selecting a name from a list created by a commission. At the end of a trial period, the judge goes before the public in the form of a retention election—no opponent.

According to the American Bar Association, seven states elect their judges to their state’s highest court by partisan election. Arkansas, along with 13 other states, elects their highest court’s justices in nonpartisan elections. 29 states have some version of an appointment process. Of those 29, 17 of them hold retention elections after the initial appointment.

Will this most recent election cycle’s events lead to more support for alternatives championed by Representative Shepherd and Governor Hutchinson? Only time will tell. It is my opinion that prospects for such drastic change to judicial selection in Arkansas are doubtful. In all fairness, even a merit-based system such as the “Missouri Plan” would likely do little to stop the meddling of outside groups or even negative campaign tactics.  However, the issue is as politically ripe as it has ever been and policy making relies heavily on windows of opportunity. The public mudslinging and “dark money” we have come to expect in practically all electoral races, except judicial contests, has finally reached the state’s judiciary. Perhaps it is time we rethink judicial selection in Arkansas.

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets