Requests for election monitors at polling places in Pulaski and Jefferson counties were approved during a meeting of the state Board of Election Commissioners this week.
The Pulaski County Regional Building and the Cooperative Extension Service will have an election monitor to ensure voters who are not wearing masks or who present signs of illness will be able to cast their ballots from early voting, which begins Monday, through Election Day, Nov. 3.
"We absolutely encourage all voters to wear masks," Daniel Shults, director of the office of the State Board of Election Commissioners, said. "But we want to make sure that people who are not wearing masks will not be turned away."
In a statewide mask mandate issued in July, Gov. Asa Hutchinson exempted voters, poll watchers or other individuals performing election administration duties from wearing face coverings.
Evelyn Gomez, Pulaski County Election Commission chairwoman, submitted the request for election monitors, citing concerns over public access to county buildings.
State commissioners expressed concern over possible voter suppression if voters are turned away for not wearing a facial covering or for having fever.
State Commissioner Belinda Harris-Ritter said she was concerned voters might be reluctant to cast their ballots at the Pulaski County Regional Building after an incident during a Pulaski County election commission meeting Monday in that building was halted over a dispute about a commissioner who removed a face covering to speak.
"I have real concerns after that [incident] has been in the newspaper that people are going to be afraid if they go to that building to vote, that they are not going to be allowed to vote unless they are wearing a mask," Harris-Ritter said. "We cannot add a mask requirement to vote. That is adding an additional requirement to vote."
The state Election Commission voted to approve a request for an election monitor in Jefferson County from a request that was submitted citing "a culture of corruption" and "continued attempts to suppress black voters by the Jefferson County Election Commission."
The request was made by Jefferson County Election Commissioner Theodis "Ted" Davis, the Democratic Party representative on the three-member commission, which has been long been plagued by highly publicized infighting among its members.
"The Jefferson County Election Commission has been fighting amongst themselves for years," Harris-Ritter, the state commissioner, said during Wednesday's meeting. "My question is have we had anything come up there that we think has the potential for reoccurring at this time that would be a violation?"
Shults said the commission takes the issue of possible voter suppression seriously, even though election monitors who have been sent to Jefferson County before have not reported such an issue.
"I am aware of no incidents that would be considered a suppression of voting," Shults said.
Michael John Gray, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, sent a letter Oct. 12 to the Jefferson County Election Commission as well as Governor Hutchinson, the state Board of Election Commissioners, the Secretary of State and the Republican Party of Arkansas citing issues of censure against Davis by his Republican counterparts on the Jefferson County Election Commission.