It’s Terri Hollingsworth time …
February 3-9, 2020
By Amber Davis
On Nov. 6, 2018, Terri Hollingsworth danced at the Red and Blue Events Venue in Little Rock, Arkansas, as she was elected Pulaski County Circuit and County Clerk. “It was awesome,” she remembered. The moment was even more special because Hollingsworth’s brother, who lives in Washington, D.C., and her sisters, living in New Jersey and Houston, had traveled to Arkansas the weekend before election day to knock doors for her campaign. All three stayed through election night and celebrated with Hollingsworth. The voters of Pulaski County had elected her the first African-American woman to county-wide executive office.
Less than two months later, on Jan. 1, 2019, Judge Wendell Griffen administered the oath of office to Hollingsworth so she could hit the ground running. “There’s no blueprint for what you’re supposed to do on your first day in office,” Hollingsworth laughed. She spent a large part of her first day swearing in her staff, along with the employees of other county offices.
Hollingsworth is proud to be the first black woman elected clerk of Pulaski County, and she noted, “I think it’s a sign of progress.”
This is not Hollingsworth’s first foray into government. Throughout her career, Hollingsworth has served the city, the state, and the federal government, and she has worked in the private sector. “My whole career has prepared me for this job,” Hollingsworth said. She graduated from Howard University, and later from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Master of Business Administration. Hollingsworth began her career as a Little Rock city planner, and later worked as the city’s economic development administrator. As director of the State Board of Election Commissioners, Hollingsworth had a $3.2 million dollar budget and managed the Board’s daily operations, communicated statewide about election legislation, conducted poll-worker training, and served as the contact to legislators.
Voting and registration continue to be priorities for Hollingsworth in her role as Clerk. “This is an important issue for me, because it’s a value I’ve had all my life,” Hollingsworth said. She continued, “When I turned 18, my birthday present was my voter registration.” Hollingsworth’s parents underscored the responsibility to register to vote, but also to actually go to the polls. “They wanted excellence from [my siblings and me], and part of that was registering to vote and voting, as well as understanding current news and politics,” Hollingsworth remembered.
Hollingsworth said that the biggest change the Clerk’s office has made regarding registration is simply promoting voter registration and voting. On National Voter Registration Day — Sept. 24, 2019 — the Pulaski County Clerk’s office partnered with several organizations to host voter registration pop-ups. The pop-ups were at Central High School, Shorter College, and University of Arkansas-Pulaski Tech (UA-PTC), and the events were hosted in collaboration with the League of Women Voters, Job Corps, Association of American University Women, and New Leaders Council of Arkansas. Hollingsworth traveled to all the pop-up sites to meet the newly registered voters and discuss the importance of voting. Hollingsworth plans to hold 20 more registration pop-ups in 2020, with a special emphasis on registering high-school students in Pulaski County. Her office is currently determining the best venues for these pop-ups.
In addition to the pop-ups, the Clerk’s office is helping educate others who want to host voter-registration events. Because some registrants have difficulty filling out the registration form, Hollingsworth wants to ensure that prospective voters can complete the form properly. If the county must contact a registrant to clarify information in the paperwork, that registrant may not respond.
Once a person is registered to vote, Hollingsworth noted that the next hurdle is voter turnout. “The key is figuring out how to get them to vote, even if the candidate isn’t exciting,” she said. Hollingsworth continued, “We don’t want people to pick and choose which electing they’re voting in. All elections are important — even the school board election — to at least let folks know that the voters are interested.”
Another priority for Hollingsworth is the 2020 census. Governor Asa Hutchinson appointed Hollingsworth to the Arkansas Complete Count Committee, a state-wide group to encourage residents to participate in the census. The Clerk’s office is communicating with the cities in Pulaski County to ensure that each municipality has a plan for conducting the census and to determine which areas have high concentrations of people who will be difficult to count. Hollingsworth said that the key in those areas will be to understand why census participation might be low among certain demographic groups. For example, some populations might have a high distrust of the government.
Hollingsworth plans to help educate those populations about the benefits of participating in the census. Those communities may need to learn that the census results will affect redistricting and money that is available to Arkansans. “We have to highlight that money can result from the census can help with prenatal care, schools, pre-kindergarten. We have to let folks know what’s in it for them,” she said.
Although it may seem like a small issue, Hollingsworth is encouraging the employees of the Clerk’s office to improve customer service. “I’m hoping better customer service not only helps attorneys, but it helps everyone,” Hollingsworth said. She has emphasized with some staff members that “every piece of paper is somebody’s life. When they come in, they’re already going to be very focused on what it is they’re trying to get done.”
Employees of the clerk’s office are not allowed to give legal advice. As Hollingsworth noted, sometimes an employee is giving legal advice just by answering a question as simple as what name to put in a blank on a certain form. “We really have to go overboard to be nice because people really think that we’re trying to put them off, and we’re not,” Hollingsworth said. The Clerk’s office is attempting to educate the public about the prohibition against the employees giving legal advice.
The Pulaski County Clerk’s office has also started enforcing the statutory charge of $2.50 for drawing and issuing summonses. The charge is mandated by statute but had not been charged by previous clerks. Conversely, the Clerk’s office is no longer charging for litigants to file petitions to seal.
Another change the Clerk’s office is making is to improve communication with judges. Pulaski county has 17 circuit judges, and the Clerk’s office must maintain open communication with all of them. One of Hollingsworth’s first activities as Clerk was to meet and visit with all of the judges to learn their needs and practices. “We need to make sure we’re doing the same thing for each judge,” Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth is now in her second year of a four-year term and is still evaluating the systems and policies in place at the Clerk’s office. In addition to improving customer service, voter registration, communication with judges, and census participation, Hollingsworth hopes to improve the office and update it as much as possible during her tenure.