In his 10 years as a Pulaski County poll worker, Charlie Beckman never saw a mess like this.
With more than a week gone by since Election Day, the Pulaski County Election Commission has yet to finish counting ballots. Commission meetings are tense and tinged with disrespect and outright hostility. On Tuesday, a Little Rock police officer even showed up to investigate the allegation that Election Commission Chairperson Evelyn Gomez physically assaulted a staff member.
“She’s supposed to run the commission with respect, dignity and organization,” Beckman said of Gomez. “I just don’t see much of that.”
Beckman came to the Pulaski County Election Commission meeting Monday night to stand up for Deputy Election Director Shawn Camp and poll worker Catherine Dunlap, both of whom faced disciplinary action by commissioners.
“I came to the meeting Monday because they had decertified Catherine and treated Shawn like a dog,” Beckman said.
Specifically, Beckman took issue with commissioners’ decision to limit the scope of Camp’s duties right in the middle of an extremely busy counting process for an already overextended staff.
Commissioners originally considered “decertifying” Camp from performing all work related to the 2020 election after Camp allegedly attempted to block Gomez from entering a locked room full of ballots on Election Day. Gomez said she decided to physically push Camp out of the way to get into the room. The commissioners eventually voted to allow Camp to continue working as long as he did not handle any actual ballots. Their decision came after other election staff interceded to say they couldn’t get their work done without Camp’s help. (NOTE: Camp filed a police report about this alleged assault on Tuesday, prompting a Little Rock police officer to come to the Election Commission offices to question Gomez about the incident.)
Beckman also defended Dunlap, a poll worker accused by Republican poll watchers of inappropriately removing ballots from public view. Republican Commissioner Stahr said the poll worker was disrespectful to her when questioned. Soon after the incident, the Republican Party of Arkansas sent a letter requesting that Dunlap to be prohibited from further work on the 2020 election.
The poll worker was simply following direction from the election staff, Beckman said. Further, he said the poll worker was not being disrespectful to Stahr. She was simply heeding her training to not speak to anyone while performing poll worker duties, Beckman explained. Commissioners ultimately decided to honor the RPA’s request.
“Please don’t do that,” Beckman asked commissioners after their vote. Because of his tenure and experience, Beckman now serves as a chief judge for absentee ballot poll workers. The worker in question has been a valuable member of his team, he said. “She did nothing wrong. You’re sending a message to all my workers.”
The full-time and temporary election staff in Pulaski County is the best in the state, Beckman said. He worries the commissioners’ treatment will run them off. The quality of the county’s election process could suffer without an experienced staff in place.
“If this has been going on for longer than just this election, I’m shocked that they’re still here,” Beckman said. “Why would you put up with stuff like that?”
Attending the Monday meeting was quite an eye-opener for Beckman, who said he had been aware of some tension but did not realize the extent of mismanagement and abuse at the Pulaski Election Commission because he rarely attends meetings. Beckman said he was aghast to see Gomez barking orders and heaping abuse on Election Director Bryan Poe. “I thought they treated Bryan like a slave, making demands on him,” he said.
Beckman also said he’s frustrated the commission wasn’t ready for what everyone knew would be a tsunami of work.
While Pulaski poll workers and other staff started preparing months ago for the hairiest election in memory, Beckman said the election commissioners charged with overseeing the entire process didn’t budge from the same processes and timelines they’ve used in the past.
“The mess is that the commission is not through yet,” Beckman said Wednesday. “I think they totally, totally, totally underestimated what they were going to have to do after the election.”
Because of a special order by the governor, the commissioners could have begun the process of looking through absentee ballots poll workers marked for rejection or further inspection a full two weeks before Election Day. But they kept to their standard practice and didn’t dive into the boxes of nearly 5,000 of those ballots until the evening of November 3.
“They acted like they were waiting on the staff to say, ‘Oh, we have some work for you to do.’ If they were tuned into the process, they would have known there was work to do,” Beckman said.
Because so many people voted from home in the COVID pandemic, Pulaski County received 25,000 absentee ballots. That’s five times more than the previous record high number. The county election staff prepped for the wave of extra work by hiring and training additional poll workers. Beckman also noted that Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth made the process easier for Pulaski’s absentee voters by setting up a ballot drop-off station. He said he doesn’t understand why Pulaski election commissioners failed to be similarly proactive in what everyone knew would be a challenging year.
He takes issue with Commissioner Stahr’s complaints that absentee ballots requiring inspection by commissioners were disorganized or categorized incorrectly. “Kristi and Evelyn conveyed that they were given a big mess. I think that’s totally false,” Beckman said.
In fact, he said, an expanded poll worker team added an extra step this year. The team sorted irregular absentee ballots into different categories based on what element needed further inspection. The goal was to help the commission work quickly through their larger-than-usual workload for the 2020 election.
Beckman, himself a Republican, praised Commissioner Joshua Ang Price, the sole Democrat on the three-person commission. “To me, he’s been the only respectful one on there. He’s the only one who has shown respect and support for the workers,” he said.