As of now, Stu Soffer is a member of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners and the State Board of Election Commissioners. But all of that could soon change. Through his attorney earlier this month, Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV requested that Soffer resign from the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners.
“He is in violation of an Arkansas statue,” said Wilkins. “It’s unethical and proves a lack of integrity on his part for him to continue to serve.”
The statue Wilkins referenced is 7-5-904 of the Voting and Elections Transparency Act of 2017. It states, “(a.) a member of the State Board of Election Commissioners or a county board of election commissioners shall not serve as a poll worker or a poll watcher on behalf of an individual candidate, political party or ballot initiative. It goes on to say, (b.) a person shall not simultaneously serve on the State Board of Election Commissioners and a county board of election commissioners. Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) was one of the sponsors to the bill which Wilkins says went into effect on Aug. 2.”
“Act 1014 of 2017 will help ensure that Arkansas elections are held to the highest standard of transparency and serve the best interest of all voters across the state,” said Flowers. “In order to get there, the conflicts of interest that the law clearly addresses have to go. The full implementation of this law is not about any one person, but instead about optimum voter confidence as well as clean and fair elections.”
In Wilkins’ Sept. 14 letter to Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter, he states as a “three-member board, any split of the vote requires two commissioners to be qualified to vote on the matter,” adding that “if one of those members is ineligible to serve, the validity of the actions of the board is open to challenge,” thus putting the entire election process in jeopardy.
“It creates a lack of confidence in the electoral process in Arkansas when you have people who are serving on the state and the county, because it becomes an issue of abuse of power,” Wilkins said. “The legislative intent as I understand it says that clearly no one can serve on both.”
Soffer, who declined to comment, has been a member of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners since 2003. He was appointed to a second term on the State Board of Election Commissioners by Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb in 2016 after his first term in 2012. The Republican Party of Arkansas could not be reached by press time. Hunter, who is the legal counsel for the county board of election commissioners, says he’s reviewing Soffer’s role on both commissions.
“There are several legal issues that are involved in the decision of how that (Act 1014 of 2017) applies to someone who is sitting on both of those boards at the present time, and that’s what we’re currently researching to determine the action we need to take,” Hunter said, acknowledging that he received the letter from Wilkins requesting to remove him from the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners.
Hunter expects to have a decision on Wilkins’ request later next week.
“At the beginning of the new state fiscal year, which is July 1, is when he should’ve tendered his resignation from one or the other,” Wilkins said. “It doesn’t really matter to me which one he comes off of. My point is that he’s breaking state law right now and if he does not adhere then I’ll have to do what I’ve had to do a few times before and that is file motions with the court. And that’s not something I enjoy doing.”
This is not the first legal battle Wilkins and Soffer have been entangled in. Based on a July 14 petition, attorneys for Judge Wilkins filed a lawsuit against two out of three Jefferson County Election Board Commissioners, including Chairman Mike Adam and Soffer, for failure to allow the election coordinator — Will Fox — selected by the county judge to do his job.
Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Rob Wyatt Jr. ordered that the commission perform their duties as assigned under state law and said that failure to do so would result in contempt of order punishable up to and including being sent to the county jail.
Soffer and Adam have contended that Fox wasn’t qualified for the job. Just last week, Soffer and Adam rejected Wilkins’ latest appointment as election coordinator, Efrem Elliott, saying that he, too, is unqualified for the position.
“When people are treated with disrespect, disregard and downright arrogant demagoguery then I feel that it’s my responsibility to step in and defend those people who are voiceless,” Wilkins said. “And that is what I’ve had to do on a number of occasions, because of the way this man treats people.”
Unsure of the outcome of his request, Wilkins says no matter what, he will continue to fight on behalf of the people of Jefferson County as it relates to fair election practices.
“This man will not be allowed to continue to mistreat the citizens of Jefferson County — Republican or Democrat, black or white, rich or poor — as long as I’m county judge and can do something about it,” Wilkins said.