During the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Commissioner Theodis Davis brought up polling sites that were closed that he said he specifically voted against.

The pandemic is the latest obstacle for voter’s ability to participate in the US elections. How a county conducts an election during a crisis is on close watch. Not only has COVID-19 presented a threat to the in-person voting, polling sites are also being cut.

During the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Commissioner Theodis Davis brought up polling sites that were closed that he said he specifically voted against.

According to Davis, Old Morning Star Baptist Church and New Town Baptist Church were consolidated in January in a meeting held by Michael Adam, chairman and Stuart Soffer, secretary, after he departed briefly from the commission.

Davis was contacted by many concerned citizens who felt closing those polling stations made it difficult for people to vote and would have a significant impact on how and who would vote.

“You can call it consolidation if you want to but it’s another word for that,” said Davis. “It’s called voter suppression.”

Adam interrupted stating it was not voter suppression.

Voter suppression concerns allegations about various efforts, legal and illegal, used to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote. History tells the story of how certain communities are particularly susceptible to suppression— people of color, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

“If you are moving and closing a polling place and individuals have to go a substantial distance to vote, it is voter suppression,” said Davis.

According to Davis in 2019 the commission agreed that those polling places in question would still be there but when he left Adam called a meeting to reverse the decision.

“It is no justification for it other than voter suppression,” said Davis.

But Soffer disagrees stating the reason for closing those sites were due to low numbers during the primaries in March.

According to data provided by Soffer, Old Morning Star Baptist Church had 74 voters, Newtown 49, Pine Bluff School Administration Building 84, St. James 111, Humphrey 27, Swan Lake 28, Sherrill 60, Wabbeseka 84 and Linwood 57.

“If these three polling sites experience less than 100 voters in the primaries, they would be consolidated,” said Soffer who stated it takes $5,000 to operate a polling site and cost a substantial amount of money to purchase the equipment.

Davis asked the vote be rescinded to which both Adam and Soffer refused.

Soffer added at the recommendation of the Secretary of State, they needed to reduce polling sites.

“We did what we had to do to act in the people’s best interest,” said Soffer who recommended absentee and early voting. “No we don’t suppress voters, we try to encourage voting.”

Arkansas law permits residents to vote absentee if they are concerned that going to the polls threatens their health or the health of others as a result of the COVID-19. Pine Bluff City Council members were in attendance to validate that point, representing those citizens who lived in the ward those polling sites were located in.

Pine Bluff City Council member Joni Alexander, of Ward 1, pointed out the secretary of state consolidation suggestion was prior to COVID-19.

Previously reported, the State Board of Election Commissioners advised county election officials that they open the same number of polling locations that would have been opened had COVID-19 not become a factor in the general election in order to ensure that voters are not unnecessarily condensed into fewer physical locations.

“The CDC recommends that you maintain or increase the total number of polling places available to the public on election day to improve the ability to social distance,” said Alexander.

She requested the polling sites remain open because more polling sites would reduce the number of voters indoors at the same time.

“It’s easier to manage lines and it also allows for more breaks to disinfect centers because right now we are making more people have to congregate,” said Alexander. “I ask that you all reconsider your vote on consolidating voting sites and keep in mind COVID-19.”

Soffer responded that the lack of equipment and trained workers would not allow more polling sites to open this late.

Adam added that the polling sites were so low in numbers that even when consolidated they would still be low compared to the locations on the south and west side of town that average between 400 to 500 people.

Pine Bluff City Council member Lloyd Holcomb Jr., also of Ward 1, advocated to keep the poll sites open also stating elderly people who lived in those areas wanted to vote.

He also stated the low numbers in the primaries wouldn’t compare to the upcoming election, as this will be one of the biggest elections the community has had in a long time.

“I heard you speak about the primary election back in March but we are talking about the General Election here in November when people come out to vote in mass numbers,” said Holcomb. “I ask the commission to rescind their vote when we talk about these polling sites and keeping them open for all of our citizens in our city.”

Soffer, who said he was tired of hearing about voter suppression, agreed to adding back the Pine Bluff School Administration Building and Old Morning Star Baptist Church if the aldermen felt that would help people vote during the virus and lead to more voter confidence.

“We got the equipment,” said Soffer. “We don’t have the people.”

Alexander said she could round up poll workers.

“This is a big election coming up in November,” said Alexander.

Soffer made a motion to relocate Swan Lake Polling site to Swan Lake Volunteer Fire Department, reinstate Old Morning Star and Pine Bluff School Administration as a polling site but the motion failed with one ‘nay’ by Davis because New Town was not added.

After a round of deal or no deal between the commissioners, Davis changed his vote so the other two polling places could open but suggested New Town be addressed in the future.

“I’m not opposed to putting New Town in the agenda for a future meeting,” said Soffer who stated it won’t be in time for this election.

The Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners will also meet tonight at 6 pm. Entry to the building will be via the rear door because of Main Street construction. Face masks are required. Attendees are asked to observe social distancing and use best practices for everyone’s safety.

Tonight’s agenda will include the ballot position drawing for the Nov. 3 General Election.