One of the important primary elections in Arkansas this May involves the statewide officeholder most responsible for those elections.
Secretary of State John Thurston faces Eddie Joe Williams in the Republican primary. Anna Beth Gorman faces Joshua Price in the Democratic primary. We’ll focus on the Republicans this column.
The secretary of state is the chief elections officer in charge of candidate filing for districtwide and statewide races and of coordinating and tabulating election results, among other duties. The officeholder also chairs the State Board of Election Commissioners.
The office also maintains the Capitol, protects it through the Capitol Police, and manages various business services such as corporate filing fees.
In interviews, Thurston and Williams both pointed to their experience.
Thurston said he’s had his “mettle tested” by helping guide the state through the challenging 2020 elections. He said he hired a cybersecurity specialist, and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were at the Capitol for the primary and general elections. The State Board of Election Commissioners performed the state’s first post-election audit as required by a new law.
“I do believe we had the most secure and safe election in state history,” he said. “It was the first time in state history that we had all 75 counties on the same election equipment.”
As steward of the Capitol, Thurston said he used grant money to replace the roof. He had the exterior pressure-washed when he took office and had the street in front repaved. He’s increased the Capitol Police by 10 and has improved the training and equipment for crowd control during protests. He’s increased the number of surveillance cameras at the Capitol.
Before becoming secretary of state, Thurston served eight years as state land commissioner. He previously worked 13 years in ministry operations at Agape Church. He has five children as part of a blended family (his first wife passed away) and is expecting his first grandchild.
His opponent, Williams, worked almost 40 years for the Missouri Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. He started as a laborer and then moved up the ranks, at one time driving trains. He eventually became regional director of transportation for Union Pacific’s eastern route running from Chicago to Louisiana and into Mexico.
He became a member of the Cabot City Council and later was mayor. After making the trains run on time for Union Pacific, he said he helped improve traffic flow in Cabot.
“Logistics is what I came out of, and it’s just what I’ve done as an adult, managing complex problems and issues,” he said.
Williams later was elected to the Arkansas Senate, where he became the first elected Republican majority leader since Reconstruction. He said he helped pass pro-life legislation and the constitutional amendment letting governors keep their powers when they leave the state. He helped pass the state’s first voter ID law, which was later overturned by a court decision.
He most recently served as an appointee by former President Trump to the Southern States Energy Board, which helps states set energy policy. He spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.
One issue raised by Williams is that the secretary of state’s elections website is bad – which it is. Thurston said its problems stem from a vendor hired by the previous secretary, and that he’s looking for a new vendor. Williams said he should have fixed it already.
Williams has been married 49 years, raised four daughters, and has 11 grandkids.
This is a partisan position that is supposed to treat all candidates fairly. I asked them how they would respond if any powerful member of their party pressured them to find votes to help them get elected. Here’s what they said.
Thurston: “I don’t collect the votes in the first place, and I wouldn’t know where to go find them even if there were votes to be found, but the answer is no. However the counties certify those results is what we accept, and we don’t go looking for more votes.”
Williams: “The votes will be counted, they’ll be counted accurately and honestly and transparently, and we will let the chips fall where they may.”
The primary elections are May 24. Early voting begins May 9.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.