GOULD, Ark. — The last time there was a presidential election in this cotton-farming town of 818 souls, William El-Amin, the former local police chief, noticed something unusual.
El-Amin, now 38, grew up in Little Rock. He had worked there as a probation and parole officer before joining the Gould Police Department in 2011. Like 90 percent of the town’s population, El-Amin is African-American.
After Gould’s polls closed in the 2012 presidential election, he escorted the sheriff’s deputy transporting Gould’s ballot box to the courthouse in Star City, the mostly-White seat of Lincoln County. At some point on the 17-mile journey, the deputy driving in front of him pulled over. El-Amin also pulled over but stayed in his cruiser, and nobody exited the deputy’s vehicle for several minutes, until both cars pulled back on the road and resumed the trip to the courthouse.
When they got there, the seal on the ballot box was broken.
El-Amin confronted the deputy and asked how the box came open. “I have no idea,” he recalled the deputy’s reply. “The box mighta fell from the seat to the floor.”
Elections in the United States are regulated by the states and implemented at the local level, one county at a time. In recent weeks, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump began leveling broad claims, thus far unsubstantiated, that the Nov. 8 election will be “rigged” against him through systemic voter fraud at the polls.
There is concern about the integrity of the democratic process. But for community activists and voting rights supporters, the concern is not a massive conspiracy orchestrated in Beltway backrooms.
The real threat to the democratic process, they say, lies in polling places with little outside oversight and local politics that are dominated by inscrutable grudges and alliances – places like Gould. Here, citizens are banding together with allies statewide to fight for their constitutional right to participate in the democratic process.
Soon after moving to Gould, El-Amin had joined the Gould Citizens Advisory Council (GCAC), which focuses on voter engagement and local government accountability. Here, he heard other stories of election irregularities: voter intimidation, misleading instructions from poll workers, changes to polling locations with little notice.
“The bottom line was, we had a very small group of White individuals that wanted to control the City Council,” said Curtis Mangrum, chairman of the Gould Citizens Advisory Council. “That’s how they run the show. It’s about control.”
The civic group has faced intense backlash, at times spilling into violence, since it began organizing about a decade ago with assistance from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
“We couldn’t understand what the opposition there wanted, except to block Black people from participating in local government, or otherwise just tear it all down to the ground,” said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the grassroots organization. “Gould became a test case for local civic organizing in Arkansas. The whole state was watching to see if they’d fail.”
For Mangrum, Kopsky and other voting rights activists across the country, the upcoming election carries particular concerns. Three years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, this presidential election will be the first since 1964 without the widespread protection of federal election observers.
Gould sits on the yawning cotton-field flats of Arkansas, an 80-mile shot southeast of Little Rock on Route 65. It is one of the few majority-Black towns in a majority-White county in Arkansas, a state that is 15 percent Black overall.
In the spring of 1965, a young organizer named Bob Cableton arrived in Gould to work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The 26-year-old Black man had never been to Arkansas before coming to Little Rock for training, but he’d heard it was a more tolerant state than his native Mississippi.
Driving south on Route 65 into Gould, Cableton would have looked west, to his right, and seen two grocery stores, a general store, a bank and a single-story brick high school. That was the White side of town.
Looking east, across the railroad tracks that run parallel to the highway, he would have found the Black side of Gould. The high school there, which a decade after Brown v. Board of Education still had an all-Black student body, was a cluster of wooden buildings. Two of them were recycled from nearby Camp Rohwer, the Japanese-American internment camp where actor George Takei spent part of his childhood.
Cableton believed he could reach across racial lines and involve everyone in Gould. Teaming up with longtime local Black activist Carrie Dilworth, he organized Gould Citizens for Progress, a group devoted to voter engagement and desegregation, according to historical documents and interviews included in the 2011 book, “Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas.”
The group had some early successes: a voter registration drive, the desegregation of two restaurants and a boycott of the only store on the Black side of town, which police chief Hal Pearson owned.
Resistance to change mounted quickly, though. At a protest against city foot-dragging on school integration, Pearson told Laura Foner, a White SNCC volunteer, that he’d “chop off my head and throw it in the river,” she recalled years later. [Pearson could not be reached for comment.]
In 1967, after Pearson’s officers arrested Cableton for disturbing the peace and sentenced him to nine months at the county farm, the local SNCC chapter and Gould Citizens for Progress began to unravel.
Though he would go on to marry a local woman and settle down in Gould, his initial view of Arkansas had changed. “I believe you’ll find more rednecks in Lincoln County,” he told an interviewer in 1968, “than you would find in the whole state of Mississippi.”
“Confusion and Discourse”
Gould’s grocery stores, shops and bank are shuttered now. The local schools, which in practice never integrated, shut down in 2006. Nearly all of the town’s White residents have moved away.
In September, I met Mangrum and El-Amin, the organizers with the Gould Citizens Advisory Council, at a meeting the group held in the little-used former clubhouse of the Gould Lions Club. At one point, the owners of the building did not allow Black people inside.
The ordinance, an extraordinary violation of the constitutional right to assembly and free speech, was quickly overturned. But the attempt speaks to the animosity toward civic engagement that still simmers in rural communities such as Gould.
One local present at the meeting I attended was Essie Mae Cableton, the widow of Bob Cableton, who died in 2007. After Nash resigned two years ago, Essie Cableton was elected mayor of Gould.
Essie, now in her 70s, recalled life at age 6, when people picked cotton in Gould and made $2.50 a day for 10 hours of work. “If you lived on the plantation, either they told you who to vote for or you couldn’t vote,” she recalled at the meeting.
“After we got our partial rights to vote, we had to pay a poll tax. That didn’t go away until 1968. We earned the opportunity to vote. They didn’t give it to us. We had to fight for it. We had to die for it. We were beat up for it. Just to mark a checkmark or ‘X’ on a piece of paper.”
thers at the meeting agreed that much had improved in the past 50 years. But many voiced concerns about troubling trends in recent years.
“Recently, there was a mayoral race in Dumas,” said Alyce Love, a retired educator who grew up in Gould but lives in the nearby town of 4,000, which is 70 percent Black. “There was a Black person and a White person running, and of course we know who won. Some of the stories I’m hearing are, ‘Oh, I was paid $75 to vote for the White person.’”
Allegations of voter suppression in Arkansas extend to the state government as well. In 2015, a judge struck down a controversial voter identification law as unconstitutional.
In July 2016, the Arkansas secretary of state circulated a flawed list that purged nearly 8,000 people from the voter registration rolls, ostensibly because they were still serving out a penalty on felony convictions.
The list in fact included upwards of 4,000 citizens who had never been convicted of a felony, and others whose voting rights had been restored. State officials blamed a database mix-up.
El-Amin believes the resurgence of racially motivated voter suppression tactics is driven in part by backlash to the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
“You had more African Americans and Hispanics voting than ever before,” he said. “Their solution to the problem was voter suppression.”
After witnessing the apparent ballot-box tampering in 2012, El-Amin resolved to make election reform a priority.
He, Mangrum and the other members of the Gould Citizens Advisory Council contacted other local civic groups that had sprung up in the southeast Arkansas towns of Star City, Marvell, Prescott, Strong, Huttig, Magnolia and Monticello.
“We heard that they were having those irregularities too, all across the state,” he said.
In early 2013, the local groups brought a proposal to push election reform legislation to the Citizens First Congress(CFC), a multi-issue coalition of about 50 Arkansas organizations coordinated by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. Mangrum is also board chair of the panel.
Every year, the member organizations of CFC vote on 10 priorities for the coalition to push for in Little Rock. “It spread like wildfire through the CFC,” El-Amin said of the proposal.
CFC helped draft language for two bills that passed in the state Legislature later that year: one doubling the number of statewide election monitors to four and another requiring that all poll workers in the state complete mandatory training. [Previously, only one official at each polling place had to have election training.]
It was a major victory for the little civic group from Gould. Now, they hope to build on that success.
El-Amin – who, like Bob Cableton, met his wife Janice through his organizing work – moved on in 2015 to become the police chief of Eudora, another Arkansas cotton Delta town. He hopes to organize a local citizens group there similar to the one in Gould.
“There’s no one here in this community holding anyone accountable, and it’s waiting for a disaster,” he said.
The Nov. 8 election will be El-Amin’s first in Eudora. “I’m hoping everything is ran smoothly, but if not…” he said, trailing off. “I have a bad taste in my mouth about what I might see going on.”
Keith Griffith is a freelance journalist in New York City. His work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader and Business Insider. He last wrote “Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal” for Equal Voice News. On Twitter, he is @keithgriff. This special report, part of “The Dignity of Living” series, was updated since it was posted. Leonard Hogg, sheriff for Lincoln County, Arkansas, told Equal Voice News that he started in 2014 and was unaware of the broken ballot box seal that William El-Amin witnessed.