Dr. Terisa Riley, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith chancellor, on Wednesday (Sept. 7) rescinded the university’s proposal for a voting location on the campus after a special meeting of the Sebastian County Election Commission was canceled with no explanation.
The cancelation came after it was learned Commissioner Cara Gean would again oppose the plan. Gean has offered no reason for her opposition, including not communicating with the other two commissioners. Commission Chairman Jason Vineyard said he did not know what Gean’s opposition to the UAFS plan was but hoped she would say. Talk Business & Politics reached out numerous times to Gean by phone and email regarding the matter. She did not respond to any requests.
The Commission had made plans for a special meeting Thursday (Sept. 8) to once again consider a new polling place at UAFS. The special meeting of the commission had been called for noon Thursday, but was canceled Wednesday. An email was sent at 2:52 p.m. Wednesday by Meghan Hassler, Sebastian County Election Coordinator, saying the meeting, scheduled for Thursday was canceled with no explanation given. A notice of that meeting was sent at 8:36 a.m. by Hassler with a notation that the voting location was the subject of the special meeting.
Riley issued a statement noting her frustration about the process and her decision to pull the plan.
“We have worked diligently to collect relevant information and rearrange our schedules to be present at the meeting. This is the second time a special meeting has been scheduled and canceled. After the second special meeting date was communicated to us yesterday we continued collecting data and preparing our presentation for the commissioners,” Riley said in email to Hassler and the election commission.
POLLING SITE BACKGROUND
In an Aug. 9 letter to the election commission, Riley requested a vote center on the UAFS campus.
“As the chancellor of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, I am often provided the opportunity to support our students and community in their endeavors to become more informed and better engaged citizens. As a regional public institution, serving our community is one of our core missions. And I can think of no better way to advance that mission than by having a Sebastian County vote center on the UAFS campus on election day,” Riley said in the letter.
She said she had discussed it with her cabinet and all believed the university would be able to accommodate any Sebastian County voters safely and efficiently while providing a convenient and central location for students, employees and alumni. Election Commissioner Lee Webb said the commission and staff toured the UAFS site prior to an Aug. 29 commission meeting.
Webb said the commission was assured that parking and easy access would not be a problem. He said it was “an ideal” site because it would serve a concentrated group of likely voters.
“Everything was looking good. We thought it was a done deal. But then she voted no,” Webb said of Gean’s surprise opposition at the Aug. 29 commission meeting.
It takes a unanimous vote to open and close a polling location. Because only two of the three commissioners were present at that meeting, Vineyard said Sept. 2 the subject of the proposed polling location at UAFS would be addressed again at an upcoming meeting.
“I truly do not understand how this has all occurred after what appeared to be a very productive and successful campus visit to see the location we proposed to use. Campus representatives were told they did not need to attend the Election Commissioners meeting, and we were all surprised when one commissioner did not attend the meeting and another voted against opening the polling location,” Riley said in her email Wednesday. “We have been given no feedback about why our proposal was denied. I appreciated the effort to have a special meeting to discuss our proposal with all three commissioners, but that ‘special meeting’ has been canceled twice now.”
Riley said the university’s primary interest in the on campus polling location comes from its institutional value placed on civic rights and responsibilities.
“One way to instill the value of a democratic society is by hosting a voting location on campus. Many universities across the country host these locations, and rightly so since public universities are open to all citizens. We want to sustain democracy by providing safe and convenient ways for students and employees to vote,” Riley said Friday.
She said in her email Wednesday she had hoped the university would have the opportunity for an open meeting at which they could discuss the desire to provide a neutral, public polling location that is well-equipped with certified law enforcement officers, sufficient parking, and ADA accessibility at a very recognized location in our community.
“This location would provide a safe and convenient voting location for employees, students, and members of our community, particularly on the north side of Fort Smith. As the public’s university, we had hoped to use this example of a great university/state agency and community partnership in the same way that (the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville) has done with their polling location on campus,” Riley said in the email.
Riley said that though the offer for a voting location at UAFS has been rescinded, the university will concentrate on increasing voter registration and helping those without transportation get to a polling location in the community.
“We will never give up our core value of civic responsibility and engagement so that the voices of our students, employees, and community members always count,” Riley said.
VOTER SUPPRESSION ALLEGATION
Webb and Vineyard both said Wednesday that Gean was planning to again oppose the UAFS voting site. Vineyard said with Gean making it known she would vote no, there was no need to “waste everyone’s time” with the meeting.
“It takes a unanimous vote to open or close a polling site,” Vineyard said. “Cara Gean said she had already voted no and no further discussion was needed. She said it didn’t matter what was said, she was going to vote against it.”
Webb said Gean also did not want to make the vote in public.
“They didn’t want to face the media and vote no,” Webb said, adding that he doesn’t blame Dr. Riley for pulling the proposal, but hopes conditions will change and it can come again to the commission.
Vineyard also hopes future discussion can occur and the UAFS site can be revisited.
“I’m disappointed. I would have loved to have UAFS a part of us. I hope we haven’t made them mad at us and that we can work with them in the future,” Vineyard said. “We looked at the location and thought it was a great idea. I would still like to talk to them and see if there is a way to make it work at a later time.”
Webb alleged that Gean is not interested in making it easy for college students and faculty to vote.
“I think it’s a travesty that it didn’t get passed. The only reason, logically, that you’d vote no on that is because you wanted to suppress votes. I mean, it wasn’t affecting other polling sites, and it had the potential to get votes from them, from the youth and students, who normally don’t vote. That’s our lowest voting demographic, and we had a really good chance with this (UAFS voting site) to address that,” Webb told Talk Business & Politics.
Webb also said he plans to issue a more detailed statement Thursday about this issue and other commission actions he believes the public should know about.