The Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners prepared equipment Tuesday for school board elections that will be held later this month, but not without ongoing controversy between the commission and county judge’s office rearing up yet again.
Early voting will take place from Tuesday, Sept. 12, to Monday, Sept. 18, at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Election day voting will take place Tuesday, Sept. 19, at a voters’ polling place. Election commissioners Stu Soffer, Mike Adam and Cynthia Sims were preparing equipment inside the election commission office at 123 Main St. in Pine Bluff.
“The law requires us to oversee voting machine preparation and public testing: it’s called logic and accuracy,” Soffer said. “[We are] getting a computer set up and programmed; the technicians started and then at 1:00, we are prepared to do a public demonstration if the public shows up, which they rarely do.”
Arkansas voters need to provide government-issued or university-issued photo identification to vote by a regular ballot in this upcoming election in accordance with the Arkansas Legislature’s approval of Act 633. Otherwise they will need to vote by provisional ballot. Tuesday’s dust up between Soffer, Adam and Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV is the latest in a litany of disagreements that eventually led to a judge’s ruling against the election commission.
Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. ordered Thursday that the Jefferson County Election Commission must perform the duties they are assigned under state law. The ruling states that while the commission can refuse to use election coordinator Will Fox as selected by Wilkins, they cannot deny that coordinator access to information needed to conduct elections, nor can they deny the coordinator access to any county property.
In a nearly five-page ruling, Wyatt also said his court will maintain jurisdiction of the case for enforcement purposes and that failure to obey the order could result in contempt of court, which includes punishment up to and including being sent to the county jail.
The ruling comes after a lawsuit was filed by Wilkins on July 14 against Election Commission Chairman Adam and Commission Secretary Soffer, accusing the two of failing to work with Fox, who Wilkins had selected as election coordinator for the Go Forward Pine Bluff special tax election in June. The third member of the election commission, Cynthia Sims, was not named in the lawsuit. Sims, like Wilkins, is a Democrat. Adam and Soffer are Republicans.
On Monday, Soffer said the election commission building was unlocked for 20 minutes on Friday when lead technician Sven Hipp arrived. Soffer said he told Hipp to remove election-specific equipment and to secure them in his car.
Informed of Soffer’s comment, Wilkins said the building was not ever unsecured.
“If it was, it means (Soffer) left the building unsecured,” Wilkins said. “Our surveillance shows Soffer leaving the building. You can see the tape yourself.”
Soffer said Wilkins has recently contacted Adam and Sims to inquire about a secret meeting.
Informed of Soffer’s comment, Wilkins called Soffer a liar.
“That is the most ridiculous lie I have heard in the year 2017,” Wilkins said.
Sims agreed, saying Wilkins did not ask for a secret meeting and that there was not ever a secret meeting.
“No such thing ever happened,” Sims said. “If Commissioner Adam and I were having a meeting with the judge, you would be the first to know.”
Sims declined to answer additional questions. Wilkins’ chief of staff Lloyd Franklin II said that Wilkins did not contact any commissioners for any such reasons and that to do so would violate the Freedom of Information Act.
“The Jefferson County Election Commission committing an FOI violation is already a concern of ours as well as the circuit judge who granted the writ of mandamus in our favor,” Franklin said.
Franklin does not have reservations about the integrity of the election.
“I feel that the order from last week from Judge Wyatt confirms that transparency will be clear and that everyone is held to their authority provided by law,” Franklin said. “This is all that Judge Wilkins has asked for. Judge Wilkins is working diligently in ensuring this transparency takes place while also maintaining the public’s trust in this election. It is, however, uneventful that Judge Wilkins had to seek relief from a court order, which was necessary to ensure this process.”
Wilkins has appointed Arkansas Rep. Efrem Elliott as the election coordinator. He said he does not have any problem with the competency of the election commission.
“I do have some ethical concerns regarding certain members of the commission,” Wilkins said. “(I have problems with) any members who have made the election commission hyper-political in terms of their party affiliation. Allegiance to one political party does not lend itself to openness and transparency by the public.”
“I was twice elected to the legislative audit, unanimously by Democrats and Republicans,” Wilkins said. ” … My commitment was more to the state of Arkansas. I hope we could have a similar kind of commitment to the electoral process in Jefferson County. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case at this moment.”
Wilkins said he is concerned about voters having faith in the voting process.
On the subject of video cameras, Soffer objects to the placement of this equipment inside the election commission office because it will record the counting of ballots. Soffer said Wilkins ordered their installation.
Wilkins said the cameras are positioned in such a way so they will not hone in on ballots.
“They will tell you who the people are in the room and where they are moving in the room, but it will not specifically see ballots,” Wilkins said. “It will see what you are doing, but not the particulars.”
Franklin said Wilkins ordered the installation of an upgraded security camera system last week to protect the integrity of the voting process.
“We have most of the county’s properties under surveillance,” Franklin said. “There were a lot of vulnerabilities in the election commission office. There is a 16-channel system so that all entrances and exits can be monitored.”
“Mr. Soffer himself has offered the possibility of hooding the camera during counting (of votes),” Franklin said. “We all feel that the newly installed camera system provides security and transparency as well as the newly installed big-screen security monitor in the commission office for the public to view during the election process. There have been numerous times where the arrival of poll workers from polling sites has been delayed and questionable. This will allow the public to know in real time when results from polling sites have arrived to the building.”
On the subject of Fox being the now-former coordinator, Soffer said Fox knowingly did not order provisional ballots or sample ballots and changed the absentee ballot count without the election commissioners’ approval. Soffer said Fox was told to order the sample ballots on light green paper and to order provisional ballots on any color other than green. Informed of Soffer’s comments, Fox said he performed his duties correctly.
“They were ordered,” Fox said. “The existing ballots on hand suffice. There is no law regarding the color of ballots.”
Soffer said Fox sabotaged the commissioners’ effort to prepare for the upcoming election, which caused him to order the correct number of ballots on short notice.
Informed of this accusation, Fox responded “I would ask him to show proof but no I did not.”
“I am no longer the coordinator due to scheduling conflicts with my permanent employment,” Fox said. “However, I am available for advice and consultation with the new coordinator.”
Soffer said Wilkins was responsible for the office being messy through the installation of the cameras, which left debris from ceiling tiles. Soffer credited county cleaning employees for removing the mess. Franklin said there are ceiling tiles in the election commission office ,and that when they are removed, they produced some debris.
“The cleaning was scheduled and completed prior to their meeting [Tuesday],” Franklin said. “It was cleaned over the Labor Day weekend by Mr. Del Patterson, director of buildings and grounds.”
Asked who has keys to the election commission office, Wilkins said he believes each commissioner received them from Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter and also Patterson.