Pulaski County Republicans have been complaining on social media about an ordinance on the Quorum Court agenda committee’s schedule Tuesday night that would repeal a 1993 ordinance and transfer supervision and hiring of county election department workers from the Election Commission, now controlled by Republicans, to the county/circuit clerk, Democrat Terri Hollingsworth.
The three-member county election commissions in Arkansas are controlled by whichever party holds the majority of the seven statewide offices. Republicans took control of all seven seats, and thus majority control of county election commissions, in 2014.
The Pulaski proposal happens to follow recent Republican criticism about elections in the county. Evelyn Gomez, the Republican chair of the Pulaski County Election Commission, has raised concerns, as reported in the Democrat-Gazette, about the predominance of Democrats among those hired as temporary poll workers at elections.
Gomez said she’d like a better mix of poll workers, though election commission staff said this can be hard to achieve because some neighborhoods are more heavily representative of one party than another. Pulaski County typically votes strongly Democratic. The law also suggests that poll workers should be assigned in their own precincts.
Gomez’s complaint wasn’t accompanied by any suggestion of wrongdoing by anyone (apart from a losing candidate in a special Democratic primary who took some lunch to poll workers). But it is in the Republican tradition of casting aspersions on elections in which Democrats participate. It also effectively questions the integrity of existing poll workers in Pulaski County. Many are retirees picking up a little extra money.
About 40 percent of election workers in the 2016 general election identified themselves as Democrats on forms they completed. About 55 percent did so in 2018. Workers are not required to declare an affiliation and county election officials have said it’s not considered in hiring.
The proposal to change authority over election workers is sponsored by three Democratic justices of the peace, Curtis Keith, Barry Jefferson and Donna Massey. Democrats hold 10 JP seats on the 15-member county administrative body so it is likely to be approved for the agenda for the next regular quorum court meeting and be approved.
Jefferson notes that the ordinance only pertains to administrative staff, such as the election coordinator, not poll workers. In all, the election department has six employees. Jefferson said other Arkansas counties vest election administrative authority in the clerk’s office and the proposal would only put Pulaski in line withthat practice.
The 1993 election ordinance was the work of then-County Judge Buddy Villines. Some have long argued that it is unconstitutional because the county government reorganization amendment of 1974 put election administration under control of county elected officials. Election commissioners are not elected officials but appointed by county party committees, a fact underscored by a recent Arkansas Supreme Court ruling.
The proposed ordinance can be found on page 25.
It says the clerk, rather than election commission, will hire the director of elections and “other staff positions” not required by law to be appointed by the Election Commission. The positions shall be filled according to county personnel policy. The clerk also may provide additional help as necessary.