PINE BLUFF -- Fears of the coronavirus have prompted the Jefferson County Election Commission to consider delaying the runoff election after a case of covid-19 at Jefferson Regional Medical Center was revealed Wednesday.
Election Commission Chairman Michael Adam told commissioners Stuart "Stu" Soffer and Theodis "Ted" Davis on Wednesday night that he had spoken with Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter, who serves as the commission's legal counsel, and state Board of Election Commissioners Director Daniel Shults earlier in the day to explore the commission's options in the event the virus gains a foothold in Arkansas.
Adam mentioned the news that came from Jefferson Regional Medical Center and from Southeast Arkansas College earlier in the day, regarding the exposure of several respiratory therapy students who reportedly assisted with the patient's treatment and later attended classes at the college before the presumptive positive determination was made.
"Normally I wouldn't have had a problem with that except we have a runoff election coming up," Adam said. "The runoff is coming up quickly, and almost all of our poll workers are what you would consider elderly."
Adam noted that of approximately 250 poll workers in the county, less than 20 are under the age of 65. The upcoming runoff election scheduled for March 31 will involve some 70 poll workers at 14 polling locations, plus those who will work polling stations at the Jefferson County Courthouse during the week of early voting.
Adam noted that delaying the election would require an order from circuit court, which he said he did not think would be a problem if it came to that, but he said other options are also on the table, such as consolidating polling locations to lessen the number of poll workers who would face potential exposure or to request that health care workers at each location screen voters as they enter.
"I reached out asking for advice, and I did get a call back from the governor's office," Adam said. "They tell me they will contact me from the Health Department and let me raise my questions with them. There were several things mentioned, none of which are decisions made but are all possibilities. I don't have an answer, and I'm not saying the vote's not going ahead because that's obviously a day-to-day thing that we're going to have to live with because we cannot control this."
The commissioners agreed to take up the matter 1:30 p.m. Friday after more information has become available and to make a determination at that time.
Contacted by phone Wednesday night, Shults confirmed that a court order would be required to move the date of the election.
"State law doesn't address postponement of an election, so it would require a court order for that to happen," Shults said. "But given that this has just developed today, there's no way we can responsibly comment on it at this time."
Hunter, in a phone interview Wednesday night, said that he would have to research the matter further to determine how to move forward on such a request.
"I did talk to Mike [Adam] about the concerns about the coronavirus, and I told him I thought they should meet and discuss it," he said. "It sounds like that's an issue that needs to be addressed and determine what the legalities are about doing such a thing, whether it's feasible or responsible to try to do that or not."
State Desk on 03/12/2020