A nuclear engineer, urban planner and ordained minister, Chris Jones is now vying for a new position: governor of Arkansas. After winning nearly 73% of the vote in the Democratic primary, Jones now faces Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House Press Secretary and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). Having served in former President Donald Trump’s administration, Sarah Huckabee Sanders has earned Trump’s endorsement and has claimed, unfoundedly, that there is fraud in every election.
In Democracy Docket’s latest candidate Q&A of the 2022 cycle, Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones breaks down the most concerning provisions in Arkansas’ new voter suppression laws, explains why he thinks his home state ranks last for voter registration and turnout and reveals his favorite way to vote (and with whom).
Responses have been edited for style and clarity.
In March, an Arkansas trial judge blocked four new voter suppression laws for violating the Arkansas Constitution, but this ruling has since been paused while the case is before the state Supreme Court. With these laws now back in effect, which provisions concern you the most?
I am super concerned about all four of these provisions because they violate the [state] constitution’s right to vote and they really suppress the vote here in Arkansas. Voter turnout is already extremely low in Arkansas, we’re the worst in the nation — literally 50th. We need to be doing the work of expanding access to get more Arkansans out to vote as opposed to preventing them from getting to the polls, and these provisions actually do the opposite.
If you take signature matching, for instance, it’s unnecessary and it’s really arbitrary. My signature changes over time. There’s an older lady who had a stroke before the last election cycle. She submitted her ballot and submitted a doctor’s note because she registered before she had the stroke. Her doctor said, “Hey, she’s actually writing with her different hand” and her husband even wrote a note to say, “Hey, I’m her husband and this is real.” Well, when [election officials] reviewed the signatures, they said it didn’t match, and the election commission here said, “Even though we see this letter from her doctor, we’re not medical providers, so we can’t verify it.” So they rejected her ballot. That really concerns me.
Another one that bothers me is the line warming ban. Lines are really not a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy, and organizations have often been out giving water. When I was in college at Morehouse, during voter registration, I would make sure that folks had water and during voting, I would make sure that people had water.
Again, all four of [these provisions] are bad: signature matching, the ballot receipt deadline, the failsafe provision are just unnecessary and anti-democratic.
If elected as governor, you will most likely serve alongside a Republican-led Legislature. In addition to vetoing harmful bills passed by the Legislature, what other tools would you use to protect the right to vote in Arkansas?
The good thing about the executive position of governor is that in addition to the legislative role, there are other things that can be done.
Voter education is at the top of the list. That’s adult voter education so people understand what’s on the ballot, understand when to vote and when to show up. It’s confusing to know when the deadline is to register to vote. It’s confusing when we have a ton of special elections that don’t actually line up logically in any way. And also voter education pushed down to the K-12 level. We should talk to kids about the importance of civics, the importance of voting, the importance of knowing who’s on the ballot, and modeling that.
The other two things I think are important that can be done and will be done in my administration is mobile registration, where we’re actually going out and meeting people where they are and registering them to vote. We’re doing that already in our campaign. We’ll stop at a Sonic, at a Subway or at a gas station, and the first question [we ask] is, “Are you registered to vote?” Eight times out of 10 people say “I’m not registered,” and we pull out the registration form and we get them registered right there on the spot. Mobile registration, in that sense, is going to be helpful.
And then, of course, the bully pulpit. The governor has the bully pulpit; the governor can convene and the governor can talk about what issues matter. We haven’t heard from our current leadership about the importance of voting and the importance of the right to vote and protecting that right. I will use the bully pulpit to make sure that we’re talking about the importance of voting and the protection of that right.
In August, a federal court in Arkansas struck down state laws that limited the amount of times a person could assist voters in an election, preventing the criminal prosecution of people who assist more than six voters in an election. Why do you think this limitation was implemented in the first place and what effect, if any, will this ruling have on Arkansas voters?
I can’t speak to what was in their minds and hearts when they did it, but when I look at what they did and the impact, it’s just voter suppression, plain and simple. I think about Occam’s razor, which says that the simplest explanation that has the fewest assumptions is the one that’s true. In this case, voter suppression is the simplest and has the fewest assumptions.
The folks behind these laws are adding burdens to voters and unlawfully denying individuals the right to vote, and these provisions actually don’t serve any compelling interest at all. They actually just create more problems and more barriers. When I think about these voter suppression laws, what strikes me the most is that they’re based on some fictional justification of voter fraud.
Even recently, last month, former twice-impeached President Donald Trump decided to speak out on the Arkansas election, when he said that “they” — and I don’t know who “they” is — would likely steal the election from Huckabee Sanders. One, we know that whenever he starts talking about fraud and stealing the election, he’s looking at some polling numbers and he’s scared and he’s concerned. That’s good for us because that means that their internal polling shows that we’re bringing it on to them.
The other thing is that we are a Republican-controlled state. The Republicans control the election commission, so what he’s saying is that there’s going to be some stealing and voter fraud in a Republican-controlled state. That to me, it’s fictional, it makes no sense and it only feeds into the “Big Lie” and election denial, which is what a lot of the leaders that we have are buying into, including Huckabee Sanders, so it’s about the “Big Lie.”
Your opponent, Huckabee Sanders, is most known for serving as White House press secretary Trump. Given Trump’s insistence on pushing the “Big Lie” and espousing false allegations of voter fraud, how do you think Huckabee Sanders will approach democracy and voting rights in Arkansas?
I think she will approach democracy and voting rights in the same way that Trump has approached it, and the same way that she’s doing now: Limited engagement, rule by the few, or the one in this case, planting seeds of distrust in the institutions that exist and have existed, intimidation here in Arkansas.
We know that the national Republican Party has [recruited] 45,000 “poll watchers.” I use poll watchers in quotes because what are they really doing and what are they really watching? That smells of intimidation. As I’ve mentioned, Trump has recently said that the election would be stolen from Huckabee Sanders. How one can steal an election when your party is in control just blows my mind.
Speaking of Trump, you’re running in a state that he won by nearly 28 points in 2020. How do you plan to push back on the election-denying rhetoric spread by the former president and the Republican Party?
We push back by showing up and showing up everywhere.
There was a special election earlier this year in Northwest Arkansas, in an area where Trump won by probably 36, 37%. In the special election, the Democratic candidate came within around 30 votes of winning that election. She almost won that election and she’s back in the race again. How does she close the gap? By focusing on facts and the truth and highlighting the extremist approach to disrupt democracy.
Now there are a few other dynamics that are at play in the statewide race between me and Huckabee Sanders: We know that there’s the incitement of the insurrection, the questions of espionage and the layer of the [U.S. Supreme Court’s] decision on abortion. The extremist nature of the Republicans is not only to say, “we’ll deny women their rights,” but to do so under the guise of state control and states rights. Now Republicans say, “Well, maybe not states rights, we’re gonna make the decision for everyone and create a federal ban on abortions.” What’s next? Is it contraceptives? Is it end-of-life decisions? These are things that we’re pointing out, but more importantly, they’re pointing out the extremism that Huckabee Sanders brings.
What we’re pointing out is the hope and optimism of a different Arkansas — an Arkansas where everyone is included, an Arkansas where people’s voice is at the table, an Arkansas where there is community that’s chosen over the chaos that she brings.
I’ve been to all 75 counties in the state. In south Arkansas, I talked with a guy named Jim. Jim had a plaid shirt and beat up hat, and he was in Sterling’s restaurant. We were looking at him saying, “Okay, look, he’s probably a Trump supporter, there’s no way he’s going to support Chris Jones or vote for a Democrat.” I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey I’m Chris Jones and I’m running for governor.” And Jim looked at me a little strange at first, but as we talked, within the first few minutes, Jim said, “I just want my streets fixed.” He didn’t care about party, he didn’t care about color. The only thing he cared about was the fact that he could not drive across his streets without his car being messed up.
When we travel across the state, we talk about spreading PB&J: preschool, broadband and jobs. That’s what brings people together. The fact that we can have high quality education across the state starting with preschool even in the very rural areas, that we can have solid, safe, reliable and affordable infrastructure starting with broadband and certainly that the places that have been ignored and left out, that [Huckabee Sanders] isn’t even showing up to, places that are supposed to be “her area,” that they too can have economic development with real, good paying jobs where you can work a week and still keep a roof over your head. When we talk about these things, what I’m hearing that’s breaking through is this idea of community over chaos, that’s what we offer, and that’s what’s going to win this election.
Arkansas ranks at the bottom of voter registration and voter turnout. Why do you think that is, and what can be done about it?
As you said, we’re 50th in voter registration, 50th in voter turnout and we’re first in absentee ballot rejection. This doesn’t happen organically, there’s an intentionality put into this.
My wife is an Air Force veteran. She served in Afghanistan. I think about her being over there, putting her life at risk serving and I think about those in the military that are serving right now. When you look at the absentee ballot rejections, one group that faces high rejection rates is military service members who are actively serving overseas…We’re taking no voter for granted and we’re counting no one out. We show up at gas stations, at events, in what are supposed to be red areas and we have conversations. We’re mobilizing voters who haven’t been talked to in years, if not ever, going to places like Rector, Harrison, Stamps, Wabbaseka, places you’ve never heard of, but they matter and they’re important.
We’re talking to independents and Republicans across the state in east Arkansas and south Arkansas. We’re explaining how high the stakes are in this race. Huckabee Sanders’ affiliation with Trump suggests that she may be the most anti-democratic candidate for governor anywhere in the U.S. She would make Arkansas an incubator for some of the worst policies in the nation, and they’re going to make their way up to the Supreme Court. We know the current Supreme Court makeup has really given power to governors. She’d rule in a very authoritarian way — you can see it in how she’s campaigning already. She’s campaigning as if she’s owed the job, as if it’s a coronation, as if there’s no need to speak to press and no need to show up anywhere where folks will ask you the tough questions.
The beautiful thing about Arkansas is that…we’re an agricultural state, we’re the Natural State and we believe in hard work. We’re showing that we’re willing to put in the hard work, and she’s showing that she wants to sit on her couch and dial it in. That contrast is really showing up in this election, and it’s exciting to see because people of all backgrounds, folks are saying, “I’ve been a Republican all my life, I voted for Donald Trump. And I’m going to remain a Republican. But you know what, at this moment, I believe in community, I believe we have a chance to actually realize something that we’ve never realized before.” That’s including everyone in the process and that’s a vision that includes all Arkansans and lifting up all Arkansas. And folks are excited about it.
Favorite way to vote?
Hands down, in person as a family. My wife, who as I mentioned is a combat veteran, served in Afghanistan with the Air Force as an emergency room doctor. We believe in service and we believe in doing our civic duty.
I go with my wife and with my three daughters. Before we had daughters, we would go together in person, and we would always take a photo. When we had our children, even when they were infants, we would push them in the stroller and show up at the election and we would put our “I Voted” stickers on, and we would take photos together. It’s a family tradition.
So it matters. Voting in person is a thing of pride. I did it with my family. My parents never told us who they voted for, but they always said it was important to make an informed decision. So we talked about all of that as we went there in person. And I want to continue that tradition with my family.
If you weren’t running for office, what would you be doing?
I love that question. Working so hard to meet every Arkansan and shake all their hands and get to know everyone and have the phenomenal conversations that I’m having is where all my focus is, so it’s a tough question.
But I will say what I was doing before I ran for office is probably one of the most exciting jobs I ever had. I was running the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a place that really promotes education in the STEAM fields — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — and entrepreneurship across the state, providing access to the tools and trainings necessary for Arkansas to lead in the 21st century. What I loved about that was that it allowed me to bring in my science background — I’m a physicist and a nuclear engineer. It allowed me to bring in my community background — I’m an urban planner and I ran a community based organization, so I’m an organizer by training. And interestingly, it also allowed me to bring in the minister in me — I’m an ordained minister, and I care about individuals and their lives. Part of what we said at the Innovation Hub was, “No matter how you came in, when you left us, you would leave a little bit better.” So wherever you started, you would leave a little bit better after you left the Innovation Hub. I loved the job, the people were great and I love the work. So I could see myself doing that if I wasn’t running for office, because I was doing it before I jumped into the race.
Go-to walk up song?
All I Do is Win is what I have in my head, often when I’m walking up, but there’s another song that pushes me. It’s a play on Hamilton and the song talks about not throwing away my shot. That’s what I really play in my head as I think about this moment and this opportunity is not missing the moment and not throwing away the shot to make a real difference in Arkansas. The song is called My Shot, which is great, and in this moment, I don’t want to throw away my shot.
Most underrated fact about Arkansas?
We’ve produced people and things that have literally changed the world. Here’s what I mean: We put food on the table across the globe — we’re one of the number one rice producers in the country. We’ve fundamentally changed how commerce happens — Walmart came out of Arkansas. We’ve changed how fishing happens — the inventor of the flat fishing boat came from Arkansas. We’ve fundamentally changed how literature and poetry happens with Maya Angelou. We’ve fundamentally changed our politics across the globe with [former President] Bill Clinton. We’ve changed how music happens with Johnny Cash and Bobby Rush. If you go area by area — what people don’t often talk about and what is true in almost every industry — is that early on, there was an Arkansan who helped to start it or who started it. John Johnson, who started Ebony and Jet magazine, changed paper entertainment and politics and how we got our news. In Tulsa, the Greenwood neighborhood was [home to] “Black Wall Street,” which was started by an Arkansan who ended up moving to Oklahoma. We’ve either started or launched or helped start some pretty major movements across industries here in Arkansas, and the people and products that we put forth are literally changing the world.