Fewer ballots cast in election

Jefferson County election co-coordinator Sven Hipp (left) goes over a list of candidates with election Commissioners Samuel Beavers, Michael Adam and Sharon Hardin on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Fewer votes were cast in Tuesday's special election for the five-eighths-cent and three-eighths-cent sales and use taxes in Pine Bluff than on May 9.

Pine Bluff rejected both measures for the second time this year. The grand total of 3,557 votes cast -- representing less than 10% of the city's population -- was less than the 3,944 cast on May 9.

Go Forward Pine Bluff, which sponsored both measures, will again pay for the special election, CEO Ryan Watley confirmed. That will come at an estimated cost of $50,000, Jefferson County Election Commission Chairman Michael Adam said.

The five-eighths-cent tax, active since 2017, was defeated 1,959-1,490 (56.8% against and 43.2% for), and the three-eighths-cent tax, which would have been added to supplement the fire and police departments, went down 1,763-1,560 (53.1% against and 46.9% for), according to a poll site tracking chart from the commission. There were no overvotes for either measure, but 78 undervotes were tallied in the five-eighths-cent question and 204 in the three-eighths-cent question.

The counted votes and undervotes for each measure would total 3,527, with the other 30 in the grand total unaccounted for in the chart.

Voters in three of the 19 polling locations were revealed to be in favor of the five-eighths-cent tax. The chart revealed a 76-65 margin in favor of the tax at Central Presbyterian Church, an 87-79 count at First Baptist Church on Hazel Street and a 117-66 vote at First Presbyterian Church.

Church of Christ, which had an 87-86 count against the five-eighths-cent tax, saw voters vote for the three-eighths-cent tax by a 94-77 margin.

The location was one of four polling sites where more voters were for the smaller tax. The count at Central Presbyterian was 77-62; at First Baptist Church-Hazel it was 87-72; and at First Presbyterian it was 122-58.

Election commissioners counted eight provisional ballots during a special meeting Wednesday. A hearing for those voters will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 27, but the outcome will not change the final result of either measure.

Commissioners said no identification was shown for two of the ballots, with no signature or improperly placed signature named as other reasons for provisional tags.

The annual school election in the Watson Chapel School District saw an increase in voters over the millage rate of 39.8, which increased following an August 2022 election. District voters this time said 'no' to the rate with 348 against and 285 for.

The 5.7-mill increase, which is used to fund a new Watson Chapel High School and other improvements in the district, was approved 220-209 in August 2022.

"It's not uncommon after you had a millage increase to see that people don't vote for it the second time," WCSD Superintendent Tom Wilson said. An annual election on the millage rate is required under state law but does not change the increase.

"When a millage is paid for the building, in order to keep the millage, you have to vote on it," Wilson said. "Whenever that is paid out over the years, it has to be voted on."

Wilson agreed with Adam more voters turned out for the WCSD question -- on a ballot that saw no candidates for office -- than last year due to the Go Forward-sponsored tax requests.

The 'no' vote, though it doesn't affect the millage rate, doesn't give Wilson any pause for concern over how the increase is used.

"We're going forward," he said. "Hopefully people start feeling better about this. We're still working hard on making things right. We want to move into the new campus with a new culture."