The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.
History chronicles that prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, various methods were used to prevent people of color from voting, including literacy tests, poll taxes, the disenfranchisement of former inmates, intimidation, threats, and even violence.
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was designed to address these issues. It prohibits discrimination based on race. Section 2 of the VRA, which bars the use of voting practices or procedures that discriminate against minority voters, has been used successfully to attack discrimination in voting including restrictive voter registration requirements, districting plans that dilute minority voting strength, discriminatory annexations, and the location of polling places at sites inaccessible to minority voters.
It was Tuesday, March 1, 2016 in the City of Portland, Ark., (Ashley County) where I sat quietly in my Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) in a parking lot across from the City of Portland’s pantry/community building, which was the voting precinct on Election Day.
While sitting in my SUV, a black woman approached me and told me that I had to be parked 150 feet from the voting precinct. I informed her that she was mistaken and that the distance from the precinct is 100 feet. She was adamant about her misinformation and also instructed me to remove my campaign sign from inside the window of my vehicle. I contacted the State Board of Elections to verify the distance that I could be parked from the precinct. It was confirmed that I was correct. About 10 minutes later, a white truck parked at the precinct and a white male exited the vehicle, entered the precinct/pantry/community building, and within minutes, proceeded toward me as I sat in my vehicle.
With an unwelcoming voice, the unidentified man with a deputy sheriff badge demanded that I remove my vehicle because I was not 150 feet from the precinct. I informed the unidentified man that the distance from the precinct that I could be with my campaign sign inside my vehicle was 100 feet.
In a belligerent rage, the deputy sheriff threatened to have me arrested if I did move my vehicle. He pointed to his badge exclaiming, “You are going to respect the law. You will move or I will move you!”
I asked the deputy sheriff if I wasn’t parked in the right distance from the precinct, could he direct me where to park? He said it was, “my job” to measure the distance from the precinct to where I should park. He told me to go to Lake Village, Ark. in Chicot County to buy a measuring tape and measure the distance from the precinct to the exact distance I should be parked from the precinct. Needless to say, at this point, I was discouraged. Equally noteworthy, as a law enforcement trainer, I was dismayed by the level of unprofessionalism exhibited by this deputy sheriff.
For my safety and pursuant to unexpressed protocol, I contacted the Ashley County Sheriff Department about the incident and was informed that the deputy sheriff was the mayor for the City of Portland. I was told that the deputy sheriff would be contacted. Additionally, I contacted the Ashley County Elections Commission who agreed to look into the situation.
I have worked on numerous political campaigns dating back to the 1990’s from Sheffield Nelson who was a candidate for governor; Bill Clinton who was a candidate for president to Don Glover who was a candidate for circuit judge in the 10th judicial district encompassing Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Desha and Drew Counties in Ark. In my 25 years of political campaigns, the experience with the deputy sheriff/mayor was my first encounter of blatant intimidation and indignation exemplified by an elected official, law enforcement officer or citizen of any city in anywhere in the USA.
If the poll workers, who worked on Tuesday, March 1st in the City of Portland, were trained in basic election laws, the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution, the tenets of democracy in our country’s political process would have been upheld on March 1st. And maybe, if they had a measuring tape, the incident could have not escalated to the level in which it did.
Additionally, if the deputy sheriff/mayor had any training in cultural sensitivity, election laws, voting rights and humanity, my civil and constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States of American and a resident of the State of Arkansas would not have been violated.
Perhaps, this deputy sheriff should resign his law enforcement job and concentrate on being an effective mayor for the City of Portland. With this, he would have time to focus on the obvious needs for improving the City of Portland, including community development, infrastructure, parks and recreation and housing development, for all the residents, but especially for those residents on one side of the railroad tracks.