PINE BLUFF — After more than five hours of testimony Monday, a special judge ruled that Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart Soffer did not improperly act as a poll watcher.
Retired Craighead Judge David Laser said attorneys for County Clerk Patricia Royal Johnson and Victor Johnson, who had named Soffer, the Jefferson Count Election Commission and the State Republican Party in the lawsuit, “did not prove with a preponderance of the evidence that the law was violated.”
Little Rock attorney Chris Burks filed the lawsuit last week and was seeking a writ that would have prohibited Soffer or other members of the election commission from acting as a poll watcher, and that any votes challenged by any of the commissioners be counted.
Laser denied that request, but did find that he believed Soffer and Election Commission Chairman Mike Adam violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act when they discussed several issues that Soffer reported when he visited the Jefferson County Courthouse, where early voting was taking place Oct. 24.
“In my view, there was too much talking between the two,” Laser said. “What they should have done was to say I’ve found some issues and we need to call an emergency meeting. It’s a touchy issue but in this case there was no harm, no foul.”
There was an emergency meeting of the commission called Oct. 24 at 4 p.m., and when he checked his phone, Adam said that he had sent an amended agenda to Elections Coordinator Stacy Brown at 2:50 p.m. that day asking her to notify the news media.
Arkansas law requires at least a two-hour notification under the Freedom of Information Act.
Laser said that while there are remedies for violations of the act, “It’s not up to me to say folks follow the law. If they don’t do that, it is at their own peril.”
Burks was assisted by attorney Greg Jones, while attorney George Ritter represented the Republican Party. Deputy Prosecutor Maxie Kizer represented Soffer and the Election Commission.
One of the issues that prompted the emergency meeting was that while there were 12 voting machines in the room where early voting was being conducted, there was only one zero tape. The zero tape shows that there were no votes on the machine when it was opened. Also, there were three unused voting machines in Johnson’s office.
Johnson said during her testimony Monday that while Soffer told her that there had to be a zero tape for each machine, she had been told during training from the Secretary of State’s Office that the results of each machine could be put on one tape.
After that October meeting, Adam said he contacted the Secretary of State’s Office and they were able to tell employees at the clerk’s office how to run a tape on each machine, even though they were being used.
“My actions prevented 11,000 or 12,000 early votes from being challenged in court,” Soffer said after the case was decided. Soffer added that “as a Republican, I know that a majority of those votes were probably Democratic votes. It’s ironic that the Democratic Party came after me and Mike Adam for doing the right thing.”
Adam is also a Republican.
A part of the complaint against Soffer was that he attempted to intimidate Robert Treadwell, who was in the courthouse to vote on Oct. 24.
In his testimony, Soffer said he saw Treadwell, who retired from both the U.S. Marine Corps and the Pine Bluff Police Department’ outside the courthouse wearing a t-shirt bearing the name of a candidate. Treadwell was also holding a sign for the same candidate and standing within 100 feet of the courthouse entrance.
He said he alerted Wanda V. Neal, who was the Election Sheriff at the courthouse and was responsible for maintaining that 100-foot barrier of no campaigning, and later saw Treadwell in line to vote.
Treadwell said he was wearing a jacket which covered up the shirt when he went inside “because he didn’t want to influence anyone.” He also said he did not violate the 100-foot rule.”
He said he saw Soffer talk to Neal, who then came over to where he and his sons were in line to vote, and said Soffer later came into the room where voting was taking place and “stared at the room.”
“I was outraged,” Treadwell said. “I don’t know what his intent was. I’ve never had problems with Stu before.”
Cross-examined by attorney Maxie Kizer, Treadwell said he did not report the incident to the county clerk.
Also testifying was First Ward Alderwoman Thelma Walker, who said she had gone to the courthouse three different times Oct. 24, the first two to take sisters to vote and the third time to watch, when she saw Soffer with a television crew near the entrance door to the room where voting was taking place.
She said that because of the positions of Soffer, the reporter and cameraman, people could not get into the room, and said some of the people in line “seemed to be disturbed and perplexed.”