PINE BLUFF -- Jefferson County Election Commissioner Ted Davis resigned from the Election Commission on Thursday, citing "corruption, racism, hostility, and blatantly self-serving agendas," and called the environment on the commission "toxic, dangerously threatening, and intimidating."
The resignation, which comes at a time when election officials in Arkansas' 75 counties are preparing for March 3 primary, judicial and school elections, is the latest complication at the Jefferson County Election Commission, where arguments have broken out during and after meetings, sometimes disrupting discussions.
Things reached a head on Oct. 29 when Davis, 75, of Pine Bluff, who has been the Democratic member of the three-member commission, filed a criminal complaint with the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney's office. Davis said that at the previous night's Election Commission meeting, Republican Commissioner Stuart Soffer, 78, of White Hall stood up from his seat and in a shouting, threatening voice, dared Davis "to go outside to settle this."
Davis, who is black, said in the affidavit that he did not respond to Soffer, who is white, but shortly after the meeting adjourned, he said that Soffer followed him outside the building, issued threats and gestured in a threatening manner.
Soffer has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
A special prosecutor, Jason Barrett of Maumelle, was chosen by the office of the prosecutor coordinator in Little Rock after Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter recused from the matter, citing his representation of the Election Commission as a whole. To date, Barrett has not announced a decision as to whether he will prosecute anyone.
Soffer has been on the Election Commission since 2003. Davis was named to serve on the commission in 2013 and served as chairman of the commission until 2015, when the Republican Party of Arkansas became the majority party in the state and two of the three seats on all county election commissions were turned over to county GOP representatives. Republican Michael Adam is the third member of the commission and serves as its chairman.
According to Arkansas Code Annotated § 7-1-101(18), "Majority party" means the political party in the state whose candidates were elected to a majority of the constitutional offices in the last preceding general election.
Davis has often complained that Soffer and Adam, in addition to their duties as election commissioners, have often performed work outside of the meetings for which they have billed the county.
Soffer routinely programs the voting machines and trains poll workers for which he bills the county at the rate of $35 an hour.
Although it is not illegal for commissioners to be compensated for work outside of meetings, Davis said such work is supposed to be approved by the Quorum Court or the county judge. He said work that is normally performed by an election coordinator, who is hired by the county judge, has been done by Soffer and Adam because, Davis said, they have not accepted and have refused to train coordinators hired by the last three county judges.
"They've consciously made that decision themselves," Davis said. "By refusing to seat a coordinator, they have made sure that they are the only ones in the house who can be the recipients of the resources."
Davis said also that Soffer and Adam have refused to hire black people in positions of responsibility, which he said is due to racial discrimination. Of people responsible for bringing voting machines in from the polling sites and those at the Election Commission office responsible for tabulating and verifying vote totals, Davis said only one was black.
"There was only one African American there, and he was a technician or something. Everyone else was white," Davis said. "Another thing, we have had three African American county judges to appoint three election coordinators, and everybody they have sent over has been African American, and out of those three none of them were good enough to work for the Election Commission. But each time they have refused to work with one of these people they have turned around and hired a white person to train to do the job.
"If that had happened one time, that would be one thing. But two times? Three times? I don't know what else you would call it."
Soffer has previously denied that he and Adam are purposely refusing to seat election coordinators in order to bill the county for his services, saying that the people appointed by the last three county judges, Henry "Hank" Wilkins IV, Booker Clemmons, and the current one, Gerald Robinson, were not qualified.
He also denied Davis' charges of racial discrimination.
"In all the time that I was the minority election commissioner, we never had a disagreement," Soffer said. "Never. It used to be two African American commissioners and me and we never had a problem. Race never entered as an issue until [Ted] Davis came onto the commission. I categorically deny that anything we do here is predicated on race and anyone who says different is a liar."
At least during the duration of 2019 and into 2020, Election Commission meetings have tended to be tumultuous affairs, with Adam often struggling to maintain order as Soffer and Davis attempted to talk over each other.
But the bad blood between Davis and Soffer goes back further than that. According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette account of a meeting on March 31, 2016, an argument that began inside the meeting spilled outside the building and, at one point, Soffer pulled out a pistol and held it at his side pointing at the ground as he and Davis argued.
Davis stepped down from the Election Commission in 2016 when he mounted an unsuccessful bid for Pine Bluff mayor and was replaced on the commission by Cynthia Sims of Pine Bluff. Davis was appointed to the commission again in February 2018 to replace Sims.
"Mrs. Sims decided she wanted to step down and I was asked to get back on because of my previous experience," Davis said.
Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Patricia Royal Johnson, who serves as chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee in Jefferson County, said she will call a meeting within a few days to try to find a replacement on the commission for Davis. She said she received an email from Davis on Thursday informing her of his decision.
"I didn't want him to resign, but I understand," Royal said. "I haven't talked to him other than seeing his email, but hopefully we can get a candidate who can replace him right away."
Royal said that, to her recollection, sparks flew between Davis and Soffer practically from the beginning of Davis' tenure on the commission.
"When Ted Davis came on to the commission, he came in running," Royal said. "He came in asking questions that folks maybe had not asked, or whatever. And so Stu Soffer, from the beginning, they were not buddies, I don't think."
State Desk on 01/17/2020