At the heart of Susan Inman’s address to members of the Kiwanis Club of Pine Bluff was an account of her experience monitoring a crucial election in Kosovo. But before long, the discussion on Wednesday afternoon turned to voting patterns closer to home.
Inman, from Little Rock, has served in a cluster of government positions over the years. She’s been, for instance, the Pulaski County election director, the director of elections for former Secretary of State Sharon Priest and the supervisor of the Civil/Criminal Division of the Pulaski County Circuit Clerk’s Office.
She is also the Democratic nominee for the Arkansas secretary of state’s job, with the election approaching in November. That’s something she refrained from mentioning during her presentation to the Kiwanis Club on Wednesday.
“This is a non-partisan, non-political event,” she explained after the presentation, which took place at the Pine Bluff Country Club. She was reiterating a point she’d made during her talk.
One of the ways Inman has worked on elections over the years is by observing the process overseas. She notes on her website that she has monitored more than a dozen elections in Europe and Central Asia as a U.S. Department of State appointee.
One of those efforts provided the subject for Wednesday’s talk. Inman told the group that she had been selected to monitor the municipal elections in Kosovo, in the year 2000, as an “international election observer through the U.S. Department of State.” She said she was among 125 Americans and the only Arkansan selected to monitor the elections in Kosovo, which in 2008 declared its independence as a country.
Inman also passed out an Associated Press article by Fisnik Abrashi pointing out that the election was the first “since the end of Yugoslav rule.” The article also said the election “illustrated the deep ethnic divides” in this area of southeastern Europe.
“While ethnic Albanians saw it as a first step toward their dream of independence from the main Yugoslav republic,” Abrashi wrote, “Kosovo’s estimated 80,000 Serbs boycotted, fearing the election would weaken ties to Yugoslavia.”
Inman described the atmosphere of the voting center she observed in Kosovo as electric, noting the weight the election carried for the people there. The voting station she monitored was an elementary school, and on that particularly day it became a community magnet.
“People were lined up all over waiting to get in,” she said. “The people just rushed in. It was just like a sea of faces.”
Inman also recalled some specific residents, including people who had never voted before.
“There was an elderly woman, and this was the first time in her life that she had voted,” Inman said. “When she folded her ballot, she had this huge smile on her face.”
Some voters, Inman added, were young women who came in with their small children. In all, she said, the day proceeded “with very few problems.”
Inman said the experience of observing such an election has shaped the way she thinks about the general endeavor of voting.
“It strengthens my resolve … of protecting our right to vote,” she said. “Every eligible citizen deserves that right in America, or in whatever country they’re in. I feel very strongly about that.”
Discussion after Inman’s presentation turned to Arkansas. As she contemplated questions about the voting process, Inman noted the possibility of a general voting-by-mail system in Arkansas and mentioned several states that use the practice. It’s a system she’s publicly supported before.
“In Arkansas, we’re closing polling places and we’re reducing the number of opportunities,” she said. “That’s cost effective, and I’m totally with that, but you still have people in rural areas who don’t have the means to get to that voting center. If they’re mailed a ballot, they can sit in their dining room and look at it and think about who they’re going to vote for – and then mail it back.”
Joni Alexander, fresh from securing the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Ward One seat on the Pine Bluff City Council, noted that only a small percentage of eligible voters cast ballots in the primary election.
“What causes such low numbers?” she asked Inman.
“People don’t know about the election,” Inman answered. “They’re tuned out. They’re not paying attention. I know you probably knocked on every door in your district, and you’re finding people who were not registered…”
Alexander said that in some cases even people who told her they were registered did not vote. The discussion then turned to the possibility of unpredictable life events intervening and thwarting a vote during poll hours.
Michael Robinson, superintendent of the Pine Bluff School District, was among those who reflected on the problem of voter turnout.
“I think people are tired,” he said. “They’re seeing the same-old same-old happening every time you elect (someone), and … people promise you things that they know they can’t fulfill.”
Robinson suggested that it was important for people to see voting create a difference “for us as a community, as a society.”
Barbara Rhinehart, a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Pine Bluff, emphasized the importance of reaching young voters.
“We need to get these young people to know … that they need to vote,” she said.
Lucinda Lawson introduced Inman, noting that Inman has “served as both a county election commissioner and a state election commissioner and has more than 25 years of experience in state and county government.”
After Inman’s presentation, Bill Reid, president of the Kiwanis Club of Pine Bluff, observed the energy generated by the subject of voting.
“Susan, I think you can tell by the interest and the questions,” he said, “that you have a wonderful topic.”