A Pine Bluff resident and the Jefferson County clerk have filed suit against a county election commissioner who also works as a poll watcher, alleging voter intimidation and a conflict of interest.
Victor Johnson -- no relation to Jefferson County Clerk Patricia Johnson -- said through his attorney Wednesday that he was deterred from voting early because of intimidation by Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioner Stu Soffer. Soffer applied to be a poll watcher Oct. 18 and in that capacity "interfered and intimidated voters" from casting ballots, the plaintiffs' attorney Chris Burks said.
"Mr. Soffer stood in the doorway of the early-voting location and told voters to shut up and go home," Burks said. "This is deeply troubling to the voters of Jefferson County and also to the election administrators whose job it is to administer the elections free of fear and intimidation."
Soffer referred questions Wednesday to attorney George Ritter, who represents the Republican Party of Arkansas, another defendant in the suit. Ritter did not respond to a message left on his phone.
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The action comes as Democratic parties in four states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Nevada -- filed a lawsuit against presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Republican parties, saying Trump's supporters and campaign officials have threatened members of minority groups to keep them from voting. Judges in some of those cases have or will start hearings this week.
The Democratic Party of Arkansas is not among the Jefferson County suit's plaintiffs, although Burks is an attorney for that group. The lawsuit was filed late Tuesday, a week before Election Day.
Burks has asked for an expedited hearing, and the case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Jodi Dennis, who has yet to set a hearing on the matter.
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement that the party's attorney will file a response to the complaint.
"We believe this matter is moot and their action was unnecessary," he said. "The poll watcher authorization was surrendered last week by Mr. Soffer."
Webb was unavailable for an interview Wednesday afternoon, said Lauren Montgomery, the party's communications director. The party did not respond to more questions sent via email late Wednesday.
Victor Johnson said in an affidavit that he arrived at the Jefferson County Courthouse about 1 p.m. Oct. 24 to cast an early vote. While waiting, Johnson said, he saw Soffer usher television reporters inside the polling location, and that he and former Election Commission member Ted Davis followed the group.
Soffer and another man were corralling voters to talk to the television reporters, the affidavit said, and the county sheriff later forced the other man to leave "since he was not voting, had no legitimate business in the polling location and was causing a disruption."
Soffer reportedly stood in the doorway and told voters to "shut up and go home," Burks said, adding that Soffer didn't give a justification as to why the would-be voters had to leave.
"As a result of the disruption and confusion caused by Stu Soffer and other Republicans -- I was not able to cast my ballot that day," Victor Johnson said in the affidavit. He has since voted.
He added in the affidavit that he had gotten into a "confrontation" with Soffer during the primary election when Soffer allegedly disrespected a mayoral hopeful.
The incident is the latest in "a long line of complaints" filed against Soffer, said Michael McCray, a Pine Bluff resident and attorney who is not legal counsel on the case. In April, Soffer said he had felt threatened by Davis, the former election commissioner, at a meeting and pulled out a gun but never pointed the weapon at Davis.
Since then, Democratic leaders have called for Soffer's removal from the Jefferson County Election Commission. In June, Webb appointed Soffer to serve a second four-year term.
Soffer and Patricia Johnson also have been at odds in the lead-up to the election on issues such as the number of voting machines being used and whether the early-voting sites were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Burks said he wasn't sure how many votes were challenged or how many voters were turned away.
"We don't think it's too many," he said. "We think that we caught and stopped this soon after it happened, but it is deeply concerning to us that voters were challenged."
The plaintiffs are asking the judge to remove Soffer as a poll watcher and count all votes he challenged.
Burks pointed to Arkansas Code Annotated 7-4-109, which prevents an election commissioner from engaging in partisan activity. When Soffer, as an election commissioner, "challenges voters as he did last Monday or prevents them from voting or forces them to vote a provisional ballot, he is in effect acting as a partisan benefiting certain campaigns."
"But this is not about one individual," Burks said. "It's about the principle that when you count votes, you should not also be challenging votes."
Metro on 11/03/2016
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