Bryan Poe, director of elections in Pulaski County, since 2013, has resigned.
He returned from a family leave Monday, March 15, and submitted a letter of resignation, effective Friday, March 26, to County Judge Barry Hyde, who oversees the office.
Hyde said he regretted Poe’s resignation, but said he understood Poe’s reluctance to continue given the ongoing controversy with current Republican majority control of the Pulaski County Election Commission.
In early January, while Poe was on leave for the birth of his second child, the Republican commissioners, Chair Evelyn Gomez and Kristi Stahr outvoted Democratic Commissioner Josh Price to decertify Poe from participating in election activities. It was constructively a removal from all duties, though he’s an employee of Pulaski County, which pays for the staff’s costs, election costs and salaries for the election commissioners.
This action followed a tumultuous election season that included the counting of several hundred ballots that had been ruled ineligible and the failure to pick up some election equipment post-election from one polling place. Poe supporters contend that the commissioners contributed to chaos by changes in established procedures, including ruling assistant director Shawn Camp out of election duties for the November election. Camp, who remains the acting director of elections, was in charge of overseeing handling ballot boxes. These included the one subsequently added erroneously to the vote totals after Camp had been ordered away from ballot boxes. Gomez had frequent disputes with staff and at one point shoved Camp, prompting a police report. She has left the commission and Stahr is now chairman but has continued to express dissatisfaction with Poe.
Dueling complaints were filed at the state Election Commission for investigations of the Pulaski staff and of the Republican commissioners. It seems likely many of the ballots the commissioners declared ineligible, for example, likely were legitimate votes cast by legal voters but disqualified improperly for minor errors, such as an inaccurate digit in a ZIP code.
Neither Hyde nor Poe wanted to delve into the past when I learned about the resignation.
“Come the next election cycle, we’ll miss losing one of our long-term election workers and supervisors who knew how to get the job done and got us through what was hopefully the toughest election we”ll have.”
Hyde said he’d given Poe a positive job evaluation in December, except for failing to account for voter equipment left at a western Pulaski County poll. No evidence of any misconduct was found relative to the equipment, which is typically placed in a polling place well before an election and left untended.
The pandemic brought a record number of mail absentee votes in a year when the county also began using new equipment. Hundreds of past election workers declined to work during the pandemic and several new polling places had to be arranged when former polling places declined to participate.
Hyde did comment in response to Republican complaints that he hadn’t responded to a letter he’d been sent in February detailing their criticism of Poe. He said he’d never received it. That letter, distributed at a commission meeting, isn’t addressed to Hyde.
“I had some time to think about this during my leave and decided the best decision for myself and family was to seek other opportunities.”
Did he want to comment on the handling of issues by commissioners, including his effective firing without a chance to respond?
“I’ll let the circumstances speak for themselves.”
I’ve asked Stahr for a comment. No response as yet.
Poe said after he completes moving into a new house and settling in with his two children, he’ll be looking for new work — unrelated to elections. A 2004 graduate of the University of Arkansas, Poe served two years in the Army before going to work for the Election Commission as assistant director in August 2007. He became director of elections in June 2013.
Hyde said he intends to continue to oversee the office, his responsibility under state law. Poe was paid $86,158.
Republicans are hungering to increase partisan control. A Pulaski lawmaker introduced legislation, aimed at Pulaski, that would allow the state to take over county elections from the county judges and clerks, but county judges statewide are resisting this.
Pulaski Republicans also are hoping to overturn majority Democratic control of the 15-member Quorum Court and attempt to unseat Judge Hyde and County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth. The Election Commission will redraw boundaries for the JP districts when the Census is completed. Metroplan generally has provided the expertise for mapping, but Republicans will press for lines designed to reduce the 10-member Democratic majority. A couple of JPs who live nearby in the Heights and Hillcrest, Julie Blackwood and Tyler Denton, could be zoned into the same district, for example. Democratic JP Kathy Lewison, who always faces a close race in western Little Rock, could see alterations in her district to make it more favorable to Republicans. To name but a few possibilities.
Republicans statewide are also working on other voter-suppression measures that will be applied in local elections. They’ve already passed a law making it impossible to cure a mail absentee ballot that isn’t accompanied by a photo ID. They are pushing to reduce early voting. The establishment of voting “centers” — and closure of neighborhood polls — is another aim of Republicans. Georgia’s recent passage of extensive vote suppression laws gives Arkansas Republicans a lot of ideas.