Arkansas judge blocks state’s revived voter ID law

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge on Thursday blocked a voter ID law that’s nearly identical to a measure the state’s highest court found unconstitutional about four years ago.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray granted a preliminary injunction barring the law from being enforced and finding the measure unconstitutional less than a month before Arkansas’ May 22 primary. Early voting for the primary begins May 7. Gray called the measure an unconstitutional attempt to impose additional requirements to vote, siding with a Little Rock voter who challenged the law.

“Plaintiff is faced with the choice of complying with the unconstitutional requirements imposed by (the voter ID law) or not having his ballot counted during the May 2018 preferential primary,” Gray wrote. “The court finds that this is not really a choice at all, and that irreparable harm would result to plaintiff in the absence of a preliminary injunction, as his ballot will not be counted.”

The revived voter ID law, which would require voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot, was passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed into law last year. It’s aimed at addressing an argument by some state Supreme Court justices that the 2013 law didn’t receive enough votes in the Legislature to be enacted. The court’s majority ruled the law violated the Arkansas Constitution by adding a new requirement in order to vote.

Four of the justices who struck down the 2013 law are no longer on the court, and one of the new justices is a former Republican state legislator. The three justices who said the 2013 law didn’t get the two-thirds vote needed to change voter registration requirements remain on the court. Gray, however, ruled that the voter ID requirement was not related to the voter registration requirements.

The judge also rejected a chief argument Republicans have made in favor voter ID restrictions, saying there was no evidence of voter fraud presented at a hearing in March on the law.

Thirty-four states have laws requiring or requesting that voters show some form of identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arkansas’ new law took effect in August and has been enforced in several local elections. The May primary is the first statewide election where the measure would have been enforced.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s very well-reasoned and thorough opinion,” said Jeff Priebe, an attorney for Barry Haas, the voter who had challenged the new law. “We’re still analyzing the opinion, but we’re happy the court has decided to protect the voting rights of all Arkansans in the upcoming primary election.”

State officials did not say whether they planned to appeal the ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Nicole Ryan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said Rutledge was disappointed with the decision and was reviewing it to consider the next appropriate steps. Chris Powell, a spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin did not have an immediate comment and said Martin’s office was reviewing the ruling.

The new law was one of two steps the Legislature took last year to revive the voter ID requirement. Lawmakers also voted to put a proposed constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot that would further enshrine the voter ID requirement in Arkansas law.

Under the new law, officials would have had to provide photo identification to voters free of charge if they didn’t have any other photo ID. Voters without a photo ID could have cast provisional ballots if they signed a sworn statement confirming their identities.

In her ruling, Gray said that there was no guarantee those provisional ballots would be counted and that they would face greater scrutiny.

“This additional scrutiny is applied solely because the voter did not present compliant photo identification when he voted, and not because there was a legitimate question about whether or not he was a registered voter,” she wrote.


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