Assistant Pine Bluff Chief of Police Ivan Whitfield received his requested recount of the early votes cast in his race against incumbent Jefferson County Judge Dutch King on Tuesday evening in an emotionally charged atmosphere that included both verbal sparring and simmering tempers.
As of 10 p.m. the recount effort was still underway, according to County Election Coordinator Will Fox.
Whitfield was upbeat late Tuesday and stressed the need to ensure accountability in the voting process.
“My feelings are that we needed to see a recount of the early vote,” Whitfield said. “I felt that it was something that needed to be done in order to ensure accountability. I’m not one to cry over spilt milk. I’ll move on either way. If Dutch King remains the winner at the end of this I’ll be the first one to call and congratulate him. It’s just that we are talking about a margin of victory of only 107 votes so we need to make sure that the process was followed correctly.”
King was in a wait-and-see mode.
“I’m proud of the way we ran our campaign,” King said late Tuesday. “We did everything the right way. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Held in the Main Street office of the Jefferson County Election Commission, the recount was preceded by a public comment period and several additional items of business.
JCEC minority party commissioner Stu Soffer objected to a motion introduced by commission Chairman Ted Davis to hold the public comment section first, but with the agreement of Commissioner Cynthia Sims the motion passed.
“First I would like to say that I don’t believe Will Fox should be in charge of the recount,” Whitfield said after being recognized for comment by Davis. “Because one of the paper ballot rolls went missing on election night while under the control of Mr. Fox, I don’t believe he should be in that role tonight.”
Fox addressed the matter with a written explanation of the incident at issue that he read aloud.
“There were seven [voting machines] for early voting this election,” Fox said. “I saw that seven final [real time audit log] rolls that had been released from the County Clerk’s Office. Upon auditing those rolls I realized that two of the final tapes had the same serial number on them.
“I began to look for the missing roll and notified two commissioners of the same,” Fox said. “I spoke with Scott Moore (a technician and paid member of the election commission staff) who reminded me that during the shutdown of the machines one ran out of paper and a new roll was added to finish the printout.”
Fox said that after a thorough search of the bag that the rolls were transferred in, he discovered the missing roll.
“Previously contacted parties were advised of its whereabouts and the roll, although unaccounted for, was never outside the control of this office,” Fox said.
Whitfield asserted that Fox’s control of the computer card from each voting machine as well as the backup RTAL rolls presented a conflict of interest.
“We lost the check and balance,” Whitfield said. “I want to get this over with but I want the count to be validated.”
Ward 3 Pine Bluff City Council candidate Michael McCray spoke next.
“I am a concerned citizen and I want a recount in the Ward 3 alderman race,” McCray said. “I have serious questions about the integrity of the voting process.”
McCray and fellow Ward 3 challenger Sheila Moon were defeated by incumbent Bill Brumett in the May 20 primary election.
Brumett received 1,030 votes to win without a runoff against McCray, who received 492 votes, and Moon, who received 439 votes.
Soffer became extremely agitated and addressed McCray directly.
“Mr. McCray, you talked about my wife in disparaging remarks in a letter you sent to Ted Davis requesting a recount,” Soffer said. “I will not tolerate that and I will make sure it is dealt with.”
Several people in the audience accused Soffer of leveling a threat against McCray, which Soffer denied.
“That’s not a threat,” Soffer said.
“Objectively reasonable people could question our elections when you consider the fact that one of our Election Commissioners [Soffer] can be fairly described as a ‘hyper-partisan’ who has personal access to voting machines, voting devices, audit tapes, etc. because his spouse has a contract for election services,” the offending paragraph reads.
Disqualified ballot review
Another heated discussion was centered on a motion made by Davis to rescind a May 22 JCEC vote to reject early voting and absentee ballots that were disqualified because of irregularities including lack of identification.
“I believe that we have a duty to review all ballots to make sure that those that were disqualified deserved to be disqualified,” Davis said. “The voter ID requirement that was passed by the state Republican party is really an attempt at voter suppression.”
Soffer was quick to decry Davis’s motion.
“One person’s voter suppression is another person’s compliance with the law,” Soffer said. “The Arkansas Supreme Court is explicitly clear that identification must be presented when voting and that things need to match.”
Davis said that what he was proposing did not run afoul of the law despite Soffer’s claims to the contrary.
“We need to make sure that all votes are handled correctly and that we do our due diligence,” Davis said.
Davis called for a vote on the motion.
“I will not participate in an illegal act,” Soffer said.
“We will vote in compliance with state law,” Davis said.
Soffer called for a roll call vote.
“I want it put on record who is violating the law,” Soffer said.
Davis and Sims voted yes to the measure while Soffer voted no.
The JCEC is tentatively scheduled to review the disqualified ballots at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“You are trying to steal an election,” Soffer said to Davis after the vote had been completed.
Soffer said in a conversation several hours later that he had left a message with the State Board of Election Commissioners seeking the return of the election monitor who oversaw early voting in Jefferson County.
“I requested that the monitor be there tomorrow,” Soffer said.
Fox said that the final, unofficial, early voting and absentee ballot counts gave Whitfield 2,007 votes and King 1,247 votes.
Final , unofficial, election results gave King 4,971 votes and Whitfield 4,864 votes; a difference of 107 votes.
“The rolls are the backup paper ballot that you see on your left when you vote using the electronic touch pad,” Soffer said as the recount began to inform those who were unfamiliar with the process.
“It’s just going slow,” Fox said of how many hours the recount effort would ultimately be.
The recount began at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday evening.