JOSHUA PRICE: Election commissioner stepping down

Pulaski County Election Commissioner Joshua Ang Price, the only Democrat on the three-person commission, announced Tuesday that he is stepping down at the end of May to pursue an opportunity that would conflict with his service.

“It’s been a pleasure and an honor to serve Pulaski County, especially through a very difficult election and the pandemic,” Price said.

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Price is rumored to be considering a run for secretary of state, Arkansas’s top election boss. Price, who has helped train hundreds of poll workers, served on the Pulaski County Election Commission since February 2019. Likely the most unflappable election commissioner there is (and absolutely the best dressed), Price steadied the ship during a 2020 vote count that dragged on for weeks.

He said the tumultuous process last November that oozed partisan tension had nothing to do with his decision to step down. “There are tensions in any workplace. We did have some kinks along the way, but I think overall we had a smooth and fair election.”

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Price was vague when asked what he has planned next. “2022 is gonna be a big year,” he said. “It’s exciting to be working with candidates and gearing up for that election. That’s where my heart is.”

The Pulaski County Democratic Party will choose Price’s replacement to serve with Republicans Kristi Stahr and David Scott.

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Price saved his announcement until the end of a two-hour meeting that sparked the fireworks we’ve come to expect at the Pulaski County Election Commission. Chair Kristi Stahr pitched a “nepotism and political diversity policy” she’d written that a number of veteran poll workers came out to oppose. The policy would have banned poll workers from managing other poll workers who are members of their family, and would prevent family members from working together in groups of two.

Husband-wife poll worker teams are common in Pulaski County, and two couples who came to Tuesday’s meeting said there’s never been any problem. Rick Wilhelm, a 20-year veteran poll worker, has often served as supervisor to teams that included his wife.

“I can depend on her to accomplish whatever needs to be done, as we are a team in almost everything we do,” Wilhelm said.

He also took issue with the part of Stahr’s proposed policy that would force poll workers to disclose their political affiliations to meet a new requirement that poll workers working in groups of two shall not be from the same political party.

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“In all my years as a poll worker I have never known, or asked, or needed to know what political party a fellow poll worker favored,” Wilhelm said. “Our job as poll workers is to uphold and enforce the laws and policies we are given.”

He pointed out voters aren’t allowed to wear clothes that indicate their party affiliation in polling places, and that forcing poll workers to disclose their party could create an untenable work environment.

Another long-time poll worker said his wife won’t want to do the job anymore if she has to work at a different polling place because she doesn’t want to end her shift after dark and drive home alone.

Charlie Beckham, who supervised the collection of Pulaski’s absentee ballots for the 2020 general election, said he took great offense at the wording of the proposed policy, and other poll workers at the meeting agreed.

The first paragraph of the policy says:

Perception regarding the integrity of the election process plays a critical role as elections provide the link between voters and those elected to represent them. If voters do not have confidence that the process if free, fair, and secure, then the system of representative government may cast doubt, which in turn may lead to complacency and reduced voter turnout. Therefore, it is the purpose of this Board to hold to a higher standard and to assure to the citizens and voters of Pulaski County that elections shall remain free from conflict through the  careful and thoughtful implementation of a nepotism and political diversity policy.

Beckham bristled at the suggestion that his integrity would be in question. “Perception regarding of the integrity? To me, that questions the integrity of all of the workers previously.”

He doesn’t allow poll workers to discuss politics on the job, and thinks forcing them to disclose their party affiliation will cause problems where none currently exist. And if poll workers of opposing parties have to be divided evenly among polling places, poll workers who like working in their own neighborhoods could be displaced, he said.

“Do you know of some integrity irregularities? If you do, I’d like to hear about it,” Beckham told Stahr. “If you don’t, I’d like you to scratch this whole thing.”

Stahr acknowledged there have been no problems she knows of that this policy would address. “I don’t think it applies to anyone in this room, anyone who’s a Pulaski county poll worker,” she said. She said she worried that the nature of marriage is changing and that people in younger generations won’t have such long-lasting unions (it was unclear how shorter marriages could influence poll worker performance).

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She said she wrote it to bring regulations for poll workers in line with other government employees, who are often governed by nepotism policies. But after listening to the six poll workers’ concerns she agreed to pull the policy for a full re-work. She said plans to work with them on a new proposal that will swap out the section about balancing poll workers of different parties with a plan to have floaters instead. These floating poll workers could volunteer to go work at sites where the pool of poll workers seems too homogeneous. For example, a Democrat might volunteer to go work at a polling site in the far western reaches of Pulaski County, while a Republican could volunteer for a shift in Hillcrest.