A meeting between a frequent county pollworker and Pike County Circuit Clerk Roger Graves may have helped defuse a tense situation among election officials and workers. But those involved are saying little publicly about any resolution to a complaint that was made very publicly on Facebook.
“It was a very beneficial meeting,” Graves said Monday. “That’s really all I can say. I mostly just sat and listened.”
Graves said county Republican Party chair Bobby McDaniel arranged the meeting, and he referred any further comment to McDaniel.
McDaniel didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Richie Fortenberry, a frequent county pollworker in recent years, mentioned the meeting when he agreed to an interview with the Enterprise-Journal, but then left a message seeking to reschedule and did not respond to attempts to set a new interview time.
The controversy erupted last week after Fortenberry claimed in a public Facebook post that his support of President Donald Trump and yard full of campaign signs got him removed from consideration for such a position this year.
Members of the Pike County Election Commission say they asked prospective pollworkers to be careful about their public pronouncements and support of candidates as far back as January.
Forrtenberry, worship minister at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Osyka-Progess Road, posted that he had worked the Progress precinct in District 5 in the past few years, but was asked to work the Pricedale precinct in District 3 this year.
He said he refused because of the distance at the early hour he would need to leave home, and asked District 5 Election Commissioner Stacie Ott why he couldn’t work at Progress again.
He claimed that Ott told him three different stories about moving him — first, that he needed to help train and oversee a new pollworker; then that the commission thought he was related to a District 5 supervisor candidate; and finally that his support for Trump and for candidates in this election, shown by yard signs for Republicans and Democrats, disqualified him.
He said he then called Graves and was told that “being vocal on fb about trump and my first ammendment (sic) right was a very thin line.” Graves later, he wrote, called back and said he wouldn’t be working at any Pike County polling place.
He urged friends and supporters to call the circuit clerk’s office and ask why he can’t work the polls this year.
The election commission responded with a Facebook post of its own, saying Fortenberry’s post contained inaccuracies.
The post said the commission, not the circuit clerk, hires pollworkers, and that the circuit clerk is not the commission’s “boss.” It said the commission assigns and votes on all pollworkers, and members do not individually make those determinations, even though members may call pollworkers to ask them to work or give them their assignments.
The commission’s post also said, “the Commission posted a heartfelt message in January which was widely shared, advising pollworkers of the need for fair and unbiased workers and the dangers posed by their social media posts ... We warned all our workers that their posts might cross a line that would eliminate their eligibility to work due to a bias for a particular candidate.
“It’s now July and based on Richie’s posts along with the comments it generated, it would appear that the Commission’s concerns were well-founded.”
The January post referenced in the commission’s response to Fortenberry says, in part, “Yes, you have the absolute right to express yourself and your opinions — yes, you have the right to support the candidate of your choice. But when you cross a line, you limit our ability to continue to use your services as a Pollworker.”
Ott, when reached by the Enterprise-Journal and asked about the situation, said “goodbye” and hung up.
“We have about 150 pollworkers for each election, and we handle them all the same way,” commission chair Trudy Berger said. “If somebody doesn’t accept where they’re assigned, we move on to the next one.
“Richie made his post that had inaccuracies, so we had to post our response.”
Berger said the commission’s post says what the commission wants to say about the situation.