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Panel restores 2 of 3 Pine Bluff polling sites

by Tony Holt | August 23, 2020 at 8:23 a.m.

PINE BLUFF -- Two of the three polling places that were eliminated in January were restored Tuesday by the Jefferson County Election Commission after one of the commissioners and three Pine Bluff City Council members spoke up about perceived voter suppression.

The vote came after several blow-ups among the three commissioners.

But in the end, a compromise was reached. The commission agreed unanimously to reopen the Old Morning Star Baptist Church and the school administration building as designated polling places, but balked at reopening the New Town Missionary Baptist Church because of low voter turnout there.

Commissioner Stuart "Stu" Soffer said there were only 49 people who voted at the New Town location during the March 3 primary election. He and Chairman Michael Adam said it wasn't worth paying $5,000 to keep that polling place open for so few voters.

"Typically, we like to have at least 100 voters at a polling place," Adam said after the meeting. "Ideally, you'd like to have more than 200."

Commissioner Ted Davis accused Soffer and Adam of shutting down New Town, Morning Star and the school building during an emergency meeting in January after Davis had resigned from the commission. Davis decided weeks later to rescind his resignation and rejoin the board. The issue wasn't raised again until Tuesday night's public meeting.

Three council members from Pine Bluff spoke to the commission during the meeting urging them to reopen the polling places.

Joni Alexander, who represents Ward 1, said it would be ill-advised to have fewer polling sites during the covid-19 pandemic. She said it is imperative to "have as many sites for social distancing ... as possible."

In response, Soffer said there wasn't adequate equipment for those polling places, but Davis pointed out that the state provided enough equipment for 39 polling places, the total number of precincts that were open during the previous general election. The coming election originally was going to have about 36.

Later during the meeting, Soffer said the biggest challenge was manpower. There have to be enough people working those polling areas, and they have to be adequately trained, he said.

In spite of the warnings from Soffer, all of the commissioners agreed to add two more polling places.

Davis originally voted against the motion but changed his vote later after he was assured that Soffer and Adam would revisit reopening the New Town location for future elections.

"Sometimes you just have to compromise," Davis said.

He said the original decision to "shut down" the polling places was "totally unfair to the people," and it was done for "no real reason."

Soffer said early and absentee voting are in place, which go a long way to prevent voter suppression. He also insisted that the distances between polling places aren't that substantial. Throughout the meeting, he and Adam conveyed their displeasure at Davis' accusations.

At one point, Adam threatened to adjourn the meeting if Davis didn't stop interrupting.

Soffer said it is important for residents to understand the cost of handling elections and the fact that it must be run smoothly, transparently and efficiently.

The "cost per vote," he said, is important to consider.

"It's not right that the people don't care about it," he said.

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