The 93rd General Assembly will start at noon on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. The normally predictable pomp-and-circumstance ceremonies of officially installing a Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Tempore could be upstaged this year by a controversy brewing for the last two months over the Little Rock House District 32 seat.
Democrat Ashley Hudson won a narrow victory over Republican Rep. Jim Sorvillo in November, but the race has been embroiled in recounts, litigation and calls to reverse the results. Hudson won the race by 24 votes, but subsequently it was revealed that 27 disputed ballots from the district were mixed in with another batch of ballots. The ballots in question are enough to alter the election results, although no one knows for whom those votes were cast. Hudson’s legal team contends the ballots in dispute should have been counted as they were disqualified due to technical issues.
Republican incumbent Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, defeated his Democratic challenger Matthew Stallings by 16 votes in November. It was later determined that 36 disputed ballots from that district were mixed in with a batch of other qualified ballots, but there has not been a legal challenge – or a possible controversy in the House – for seating Wing.
Since the initial declaration of victory by Hudson, Sorvillo has filed lawsuits in circuit court, the Arkansas Supreme Court, and a petition with the Arkansas Claims Commission. None of those efforts have led to a successful change in the outcome of the certified results.
In the Arkansas House, Republicans hold a 78-22 advantage over Democrats, if Hudson’s victory is included. Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution states “the House of Representatives shall consist of members to be chosen every second year, by the qualified electors of the several counties.” It also reads that “each house shall appoint its own officers, and shall be sole judge of the qualifications, returns and elections of its own members.”
The typical formality of the House of Representatives opening day ceremony is for a motion to be made to seat the 100 elected and certified members of the chamber. This motion would likely be amended to address the District 32 controversy, if pursued in the House chamber.
No Republican officials responded on the record for interviews for this story, but Talk Business & Politics sources confirm that an effort to challenge Hudson’s seating has been actively discussed. A 9 a.m. Monday (Jan. 11) meeting at Republican Party of Arkansas headquarters was planned with the topic of District 32 expected to be debated.
At issue is whether to challenge Hudson’s seating and allow Sorvillo to serve as a holdover in the seat, while asking for a new election for the district, or whether to challenge Hudson’s seating at all.
If Republicans block Hudson’s seating, House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said the move sets a bad precedent for the 100-member chamber.
“I don’t believe the House of Representatives in Arkansas should have the power to decide elections. This could have repercussions and set precedent that I think takes us down a really horrible road. Close races could come to the House, whether they’re from a primary or the general election. I don’t think any one of our votes should overpower or should have more weight than people who are legally registered in their districts and have decided who their representative should be,” McCullough said.
McCullough noted that Sorvillo made a number of attempts to reverse the certified results. She says he hasn’t met his “burden of proof” and that “nowhere has this been decided in Rep. Sovillo’s favor.”
“It doesn’t matter to me if it’s Democrat or Republican. Whoever has the majority could just always decide the election in their favor and that’s just not right,” she said.
Hudson, who has been at the center of the controversy since Election Night, says she’s carrying forward with the expectation that she will be seated when the General Assembly convenes.
“We’ve had three courts and the Claims Commission weigh in on this and the Claims Commission engaged in extensive fact finding,” Hudson tells Talk Business & Politics. “No forum has determined any fraud or malfeasance that would require an extraordinary remedy like a new election or a holdover. All forums have dismissed or recommended I be seated. I expect the House will follow the rule of law and recommend that I be seated.”