LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A civil liberties group filed suit Wednesday to block a new Arkansas law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls before it is enforced for the first time state-wide in the primary election next month.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed the suit in Pulaski County court on behalf of four voters it says will be harmed by the law, which was approved by the Republican-led Legislature last year. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the measure, but lawmakers overrode his objection with simple majority votes in the House and Senate.
"The Arkansas Constitution specifically outlines the qualifications needed to vote. The state should be ashamed of making it harder for eligible voters from exercising this most fundamental right than our own Constitution requires," Rita Sklar, executive director if the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement.
The new law is being challenged when the state is in the national political spotlight because of a hotly-contested race that could tip the majority in the U.S. Senate. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is being challenged by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. Neither faces an opponent in the primary but outside money is pouring into Arkansas for advertising months before the general election in November.
The lawsuit, which names Secretary of State Mark Martin and the state Board of Election Commissioners as defendants, says the voter ID law violates Arkansas' constitution. The lawsuit, which also was backed by civil rights advocacy group Arkansas Public Law Center, says the requirement "placed additional qualifications and impairments on Arkansas citizens before they can exercise their state constitutional right to vote."
The voters cited by the lawsuit include Barry Haas, a Pulaski County resident who refused to show ID when casting a ballot in a March 11 special election. According to the suit, Haas cast a provisional ballot that wasn't counted since he didn't show ID. While the law was used in some local elections earlier this year it will be used state-wide for the first time during early voting beginning May 5 and on primary election day, May 20.
Thirty-one states have laws in effect requiring voters to show some form of identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states have strict photo ID requirements similar to Arkansas. Voter ID laws have been put on hold in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because of court challenges.
The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the ID requirement, which took effect on Jan. 1, in the primary.
Under previous law, election workers were required to ask for photo ID but voters don't have to show it to cast a ballot. Under the new law, voters who don't show photo identification can cast provisional ballots. Those ballots would be counted only if voters provide ID to county election officials before noon on the Monday following an election, sign an affidavit stating they are indigent or have a religious objection to being photographed.
Arkansas Republicans had pushed for voter ID requirements for years, but the measure failed to reach the governor's desk under Democratic majorities. Republicans in 2012 won control of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years and have enjoyed a number of successes, including the passage of stricter anti-abortion laws and broader gun rights.
The lawsuit is the second related to the new ID requirements. The Pulaski County Election Commission has sued the state Board of Election Commissioners for adopting a rule that gives absentee voters additional time to show proof of ID. The Pulaski County Election Commission claimed in a lawsuit earlier this month that the state panel overstepped its bounds with the new rule.
The rule allows voters who did not submit required identification with their absentee ballot to turn in the documents for their vote to be counted by noon Monday following an election. It mirrors an identical "cure period" that the law gives to voters who fail to show identification at the polls.