Arkansas lawmakers approve changes to state’s election laws

April 14, 2021 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas legislators on Tuesday approved changes to the state’s election laws, including restrictions outside polling places and on absentee ballots, that opponents said would disproportionately harm voters of color in the state.

The measures advanced by the majority-Republican Legislature come as an historic number of voting restrictions have been proposed across the country, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud in the 2020 election.

A bill approved by the House on a 74-23 vote prohibits someone being within 100 feet of the primary exterior entrance of a polling site while voting is taking place unless they’re entering or leaving the building “for lawful purposes.” The bill now heads to Republican Asa Hutchinson’s desk.

A sponsor of the bill said it was in response to complaints from voters about groups handing out water, sandwiches or other items outside polling sites. Existing law prohibits candidates from campaigning within that area.

“This is about protecting our vote and not allowing people to come and congregate and hang out around the door where nobody’s supposed to be hanging out,” Republican Rep. Karilyn Brown said before the vote.

But opponents said the restriction would go well beyond addressing electioneering by banning people without any connection to a campaign from offering water to voters who are waiting outside polling places.

“I want you to think very carefully about what our state looks like when we pass legislation that creates barriers, however small, to keep people from the polls in whatever way,” Democratic Rep. Vivian Flowers said.

Another bill lawmakers sent the governor would require signatures on absentee ballots to be compared and match the signatures on voters’ original registration certificates.

The measure, which the Senate approved on a 27-8 vote, also would ban the distribution of unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters by designated election officials and would make the possession of more than four absentee ballots by one person a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud.

A spokeswoman for Hutchinson said the governor was reviewing the measures, but that he anticipated signing them.

Voting law changes in other states have prompted a backlash from businesses. Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game out of Atlanta in response to a sweeping voting measure signed into law.

Hutchinson earlier this year enacted a change to the state’s voter ID law that removed the ability for people without identification to cast a ballot if they sign a sworn statement.

“What we’re seeing in Arkansas is the most dangerous assault on the right to vote since the Jim Crow era,” Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said in a statement. “Legislators are moving at breakneck speed to erect new barriers to the ballot that will disproportionately impact voters of color, as well as elderly and low-income Arkansans.”