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PINE BLUFF -- A special judge ruled Monday that a Jefferson County election commissioner did not run afoul of state law by serving as a poll watcher authorized by the Republican Party of Arkansas, but the judge did find that two election commissioners violated the state's open-meeting laws.

Judge David Laser's dismissal of the poll-watcher lawsuit punctuated a five-hour emergency hearing in which the commissioner, Stu Soffer, defended not only his decision to serve as a poll watcher but also other actions he took Oct. 24 at the early voting site in the county's courthouse. The plaintiffs alleged that Soffer intimidated a voter and blocked the entryway to the voting location.

Laser's ruling effectively allows election commissioners to serve as poll watchers as long as they get their authorization from political parties rather than individual candidates or advocates for or against a specific ballot issue. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defense said this is not a widespread practice but that they would recommend the laws and rules around the issue be resolved after the election.

Poll watchers, who in Arkansas can report apparent election-law violations to the on-site election chief and challenge someone's eligibility to cast a ballot, have risen to prominence as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calls for sympathetic "election observers" to monitor voting because of his assertions that the election is rigged. Lawyers for Democrats in five swing states have filed lawsuits over the issue.

Plaintiffs Victor Johnson and Jefferson County Clerk Patricia Johnson, who are not related, filed suit Nov. 1 against Soffer, the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners and the Republican Party of Arkansas. Requesting an emergency hearing, they sought a court order barring the county's election commissioners from serving as poll workers.

Plaintiffs' attorney Chris Burks said after the hearing that he would "probably not" appeal Laser's ruling. Burks said he hoped the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners would clarify the relevant rules when they take up a complaint filed by a different Jefferson County resident.

Soffer testified that he requested poll-watcher authorization ahead of the early-voting start because he anticipated there would be problems. The authorization gave him permission to approach the top on-site elections officer with any concerns. It also gave him authority to challenge a voter's ability to cast a ballot, but he said he did not do so and never intended to.

Soffer testified that he has no intention to serve as a poll watcher today, but he will monitor issues at the county courthouse in his role as election commissioner.

Soffer's presence in the courthouse Oct. 24 was for various reasons. He voted, raised concerns about specific laws and generally monitored what was happening that day, he testified.

Witnesses called by the plaintiffs said he interfered with the election and intimidated a voter.

Thelma Walker, who sits on the Pine Bluff City Council, said Soffer and a television news crew blocked the entryway to the so-called voting room while discussing an issue. There was a line at the time, and a resident in a wheelchair could not immediately access the room because the door was blocked, Walker testified.

Pine Bluff resident Robert Treadwell testified that Soffer was speaking loudly enough for Treadwell and other people to hear when he told an election official that he was wearing a shirt promoting a candidate. The shirt was covered by a zipped-up jacket.

State law prohibits campaigning inside a voting location. Treadwell said he felt Soffer was trying to intimidate him and his two sons into thinking they were breaking the law so that they would leave without voting. They ultimately voted, and Treadwell said Soffer entered the voting room while they did so.

"It made me feel very uncomfortable to the point I was angry about it," Treadwell testified.

Soffer, who narrated courthouse security video from the witness stand, testified that he did not block the door and did not go into the voting room at the same time as Treadwell. Burks said Soffer's claims were not clear from the video.

Soffer said he found that three voting machines were stored in the county clerk's office and that election officials failed to provide adequate documentation at the start of voting that no ballots had already been cast.

Soffer testified that calling attention to these concerns was meant to protect an estimated 11,000 ballots from being challenged in court on the grounds that election laws were not followed.

"This is the price you pay for trying to conduct fair elections in Jefferson County," Soffer said after the ruling, referring to the lawsuit and not the judge's decision. Soffer directed questions to his attorney.

Neither Soffer nor Mike Adam, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners, will face penalties for violating the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, Laser said. Laser found that Soffer and Adam, who as two of three members of the board make up a quorum, discussed "substantive issues" by phone without advertising a public meeting.

Adam testified that he spoke with Soffer by phone Oct. 24. Soffer told Adam about the machines found in the county clerk's office and other issues, and Adam later called election officials for guidance on what to do, Adam testified.

Laser said no fine was requested or necessary for violating Freedom of Information Act rules on open meetings.

"It was a no-harm, no-foul thing in this case," Laser said.

The Freedom of Information Act made up a small part of the hearing, which focused mainly on state law pertaining to what election commissioners may not do.

Victoria Johnson's attorney, Greg Jones, sought a ruling that commissioners were disallowed from serving as poll watchers. Arkansas Code 7-4-109 states in part that an election commissioner may not "perform labor for a campaign."

Jones argued that because the state Republican Party gave Soffer his authorization, he was performing work on their behalf.

Laser, ruling in favor of Soffer and the state Republican Party, found that Soffer was "working for the Republican Party" but not for a "particular campaign."

Party Chairman Doyle Webb said after the hearing that he wouldn't hesitate to authorize election commissioners to be poll watchers on behalf of the state party as long as they are qualified and can articulate why a poll watcher is needed at a specific voting location. However, Webb said such appointments are rare.

Soffer, who volunteered during testimony that he owns a "Make America Great Again" hat, a Trump campaign fixture, said he found no evidence of outright election fraud in Jefferson County. Soffer testified that he thinks he is the reason why.

"I believe my actions deterred planned election fraud," Soffer said.

Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.

State Desk on 11/08/2016

Print Headline: Judge permits poll watching from election commissioners

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