- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Phyllis Jackson knew exactly which candidate she wanted to choose for Lafayette County justice of the peace - herself. But she never got the chance, after a poll worker in southwest Arkansas gave her the wrong ballot and insisted her race wasn’t until November. Jackson ended up losing by 17 votes.

A handful of county-level ballot problems cropped up in the state’s March 1 primary, such as a candidate’s name being misprinted on a sample ballot or a judicial candidate listed for incorrect counties. National voting-rights advocates said complaints are filed every election, and more money needs to be invested in training poll workers and providing election resources nationwide.

In Florida, a woman says she was told the election was only for Republican voters when she asked for a Democratic Primary ballot in Polk County. The error was fixed and no voters were turned away.

Experts said election officials often have trouble finding volunteers in remote areas, relying on senior citizens and other retired people to be poll workers.

“I asked them twice and they gave me the same answer twice, so I cast my vote and then went to ask for help,” Jackson said. “They had a sign in the lobby saying if you made any kind of disturbance, then you would be put out. I knew it wasn’t right, but he told me twice and I didn’t want to get kicked out.”

Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, said most poll workers want to be helpful and care about the voting process.

“There are some dedicated and competent poll workers, but as a country we need to invest more in poll workers. Nationwide every election, we hear of complaints of poll workers lacking training, not understanding current laws or running out of materials.”

In Arkansas, volunteer poll workers are trained on how to use voting machines if the county uses them. At least two election officials from each county are instructed by the State Board of Election Commissioners on training poll workers on election rules and procedures.

Marie Bennett, chairwoman of the Lafayette County Election Commission, said the volunteer who gave Jackson the incorrect ballot was new, but had been trained. Bennett reviewed the ballots that had already been cast after Jackson’s complaint - about 35 of the less than 100 total ballots cast- and found about half a dozen were given incorrect ones.

Robert Webb, a spokesman for the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus, said the fact that all those voters were black and Jackson’s opponent was white reinforces what some minority voters expect. “I guarantee if 100 white voters had been turned away, there would be conversation and legislation to fix the problem,” he said. “It’s disappointing we aren’t even getting the conversation.”

Bennett said she asked those voters to fill out provisional paper ballots, but the county election commission ruled they could not be counted. She said she also called the lawyer for the State Board of Election Commissioners, even though counting them wouldn’t have affected the outcome. “I didn’t want there to be racial strife or for those people to lose faith in the election system,” Bennett said.

The attorney said because the original votes were cast by machine and counted, counting provisional ballots would be letting people vote twice. Jackson’s opponent was certified as the winner last week.

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