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Jefferson County scrambles for runoff

Tuesday’s vote at polls proves no easy thing to accomplish amid health crisis by Dale Ellis | March 28, 2020 at 3:05 a.m.
Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer is shown in this January 2019 file photo.

Despite losing several poll workers and one polling site to coronavirus fears, Jefferson County election officials say there are still enough workers to conduct Tuesday's runoff.

Election Administrator Sven Hipp said five poll workers, one from a polling site in the Pine Bluff Ward 2 City Council runoff, and four from a polling site in the Jefferson County District 13 Justice of the Peace runoff, had to be replaced.

Also, on Tuesday, Hipp notified commissioners that a planned polling site in Sherrill had been canceled by Mayor Jody Campbell, so the commission decided to consolidate precincts from Sherrill, Tucker and Wright that were slated to vote at Sherrill City Hall with precincts that will be voting at Mount Bayou Baptist Church in Altheimer.

In Jefferson County District 13, Justice Brenda Bishop Gaddy of Altheimer faces Jeff Edwards of Sherrill in the Democratic Primary runoff on Tuesday. In Pine Bluff Ward 2, Lloyd Franklin II and Steven Shaner compete in the Democratic runoff for that city council seat. No Republicans filed to run for either seat.

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Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart "Stu" Soffer said as a measure to ensure voters and poll workers are able to maintain a proper distance from one another, each polling site will be staffed with five poll workers instead of the four required by law.

"But what's going to happen," Soffer said, "is on election day, some of them are not going to call in and they aren't going to show up. It happens every election."

Even if more poll workers drop out, however, or fail to show up on election day, Hipp said he has plenty of workers in reserve, so he doesn't anticipate a problem.

"I have several people who have called and said they would work, and I've got them on standby," Hipp said. "I've been able to fill them pretty quick."

Polling sites, he said, could be another matter.

As of Friday, polling sites are at Mt. Bayou Baptist Church at 305 S. Edline in Altheimer, and Green Meadows Baptist Church Annex at 4201 U.S. 65 S. in Pine Bluff for the District 13 Justice of the Peace runoff. Polling sites for the Pine Bluff Ward 2 City Council runoff are at 1st Presbyterian Church Activities Center Youth Building at 700 W. 32 Ave., Church of Christ at 4015 S. Hazel St., and First Baptist Church Activities Center at 6501 S. Hazel St.

A few locations were willing to be open as polling sites, while some were wary of the risk of contamination but agreed with varying degrees of reluctance, Hipp said. When commissioners searched for sites after news spread of the pandemic, Hipp said several locations refused outright.

When delivering voting machines Thursday, Hipp said officials at one of the Ward 2 locations seemed surprised to see him.

"They were like, 'Are we still doing it?'" he said. "They gave me the impression that they had given us permission but were anticipating that we weren't really going to do it. That's the only one that made me kind of uneasy, but they didn't say they were backing out."

Should another site back out, it would require the commission to decide whether to consolidate another site, which would trigger a chain of events, Soffer said.

"Every time you change a polling site, the precincts of the people who vote on the voting machines at the new one have to be updated," he said.

Soffer said that with the machines already set up for voters to cast ballots at one location, all election media -- flash discs and personal electronic ballots -- must be reprogrammed for the new location by Election Systems & Software, mailed to the election commission, and loaded onto the voting machines. The machines would need to be logic- and accuracy-tested, and then dispatched to the proper polling location.

"It's an expensive proposition," he said, and one that takes time that, with Tuesday's vote looming, is running out. "People do not understand the complexities of what is involved. You can't just say wham, bam, you're a polling site," Soffer said.

As county election officials get ready for the election, officials at the Jefferson County Clerk's office have been conducting early and absentee balloting since Tuesday.

Evelyn Goldman, an election official in the clerk's office, said Thursday that 160 people have requested absentee ballots. "That changes from day to day, though," she said.

Early voting began Tuesday and will conclude Monday. Hours at the courthouse are 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Because of the reduction in polling sites, signs will be posted to direct voters to the proper location.

State Desk on 03/28/2020

Print Headline: Jefferson County scrambles for runoff

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