On his second try Tuesday night and with the help of several Democratic JPs, Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers, a Republican, persuaded the Pulaski Quorum Court to table a proposed ordinance to shift control of the six-member full-time election staff from the Republican-controlled County Election Commission to the office of County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth.
The theory for delay was based on need for more study of legal questions and the nearness of elections to oversee.
A string of Republicans, including several legislators and the two Republican election commissioners, opposed the ordinance, saying the current system worked fine. They also raised the issue of putting election staff under an elected official. However, this is a common practice statewide and includes the Republican secretary of state, a partisan official who oversees elections statewide. The Republicans stress the commission is bipartisan, but that’s the same as saying the legislature is bipartisan. In membership, perhaps, but not in voting with a super majority of Republicans.
The Constitution indicates the current Pulaski setup, in place for 26 years, is legally quesstionable, though it’s never been challenged. Election staff is supposed to answer to elected officials, not an appointed body like the Election Commission. The county judge or clerk may delegate duties to a commission, but that isn’t the case in Pulaski County.
What’s at issue here, though many skirted around it gingerly, is simple partisan politics. Republicans are now in control of the Commission and have been since 2015. One significant recent event has been the overtly partisan pronouncements of current Commission Chair Evelyn Gomez, who’s described her constituents as the Republican County Committee and who’s complained about the number of Democrats hired as poll workers (roughly in a percentage equal to their typical share of the vote in Democratic Pulaski County.)
In short, the Republicans are in total control and want to keep it that way. Democrats control the Quorum Court and county judge’s office and, in Hollingsworth, have a clerk who has experience in elections and whose office, incidentally, oversees voter registration, early voting and absentee voting. Some of them would like to inject more Democratic influence into election machinery, particularly given Gomez’s recent actions.
Hollingsworth made the most important observation of the night because it resonated with me. Gomez has made it impossible for election staff to talk to Hollingsworth’s staff. Gomez has also told full-time staff not to talk to the media. Sometimes we have questions. Often very routine questions.
The Election Commission, currently in charge of staff, meets only sporadically. Hollingsworth said daily communication would be more efficient and make the staff more accountable.
Stowers elicited in a series of questions of the county’s attorney, Adam Fogleman, the legal problem in the county’s delegation of election powers outlined in the Constitution to a committee appointed by political parties — two of three by the majority party, currently Republican. But there are statutes and court cases about election duties that complicate the issue and he suggested more study was needed.
His first motion to table failed. But the second, after public comments from a string of Republican critics and one ordinance defender, a Democrat and former election coordinator Susan Inman, succeeded 8-6, if I heard correctly. I couldn’t hear the entire roll call, but JPs Tyler Denton and Lille McMullen were two of the three Democrats who went along with a delay. The 15-member court is split 10-5 Democratic, but one Democrat was absent.
The subject will return in January.
I’d make some modest suggestions to Chair Gomez: 1) entertain the idea of letting staff talk to reporters with questions about election mechanics. 2) Perhaps moderate her penchant for talking so often about stacking poll worker lists with Republicans. The commission will get to hire poll workers whether the ordinance is approved or not. The need for sentient warm bodies is a whole lot more important than interrogating every applicant on political backgrounds. Her devotion to the topic suggests that she thinks all Democrats are crooked. The bipartisan spirit that Republican defenders claimed for this commission is not much in evidence.
Given that Gomez recently took great pleasure in canceling the commission’s $10-a-month subscription with my “rag,” but retaining a $400/yr. subscription to the Republican-supporting daily newspaper, I don’t expect a warm reception.