LITTLE ROCK — A judge on Monday said he'll allow the Arkansas Republican Party to help defend the state in a lawsuit over the way absentee ballots are handled under the state's new voter ID law, saying he wants to resolve the case quickly as the first statewide test of the law approaches.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox granted the request by the GOP to defend 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.
Fox, however, said he was rejecting the GOP's argument that the state's attorney general couldn't adequately represent the board. Before issuing his ruling at a brief hearing, Fox said the public "needs to feel confident that everything was done appropriately in a case of this nature."
The rule being challenged 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 after an election. It mirrors an identical "cure period" the law gives to voters who fail to show identification at the polls.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, issued a legal opinion in February in which he said absentee voters could not be given additional time to cast ballots, because that wasn't specified in the law. His opinion conflicted with advice that the Republican secretary of state's office had given to local election officials.
Assistant Attorney General Joe Cordi told Fox during the hearing that the state board primarily objected to the reasoning behind the GOP's interest in intervening in the case. An attorney for the Pulaski County panel suing over the rule said its concern was that allowing the GOP to intervene would delay the case.
Fox set a Friday deadline for both sides to file motions for summary judgment in the case and an April 23 deadline for both sides to reply. Fox said he hoped to resolve the case quickly, since it any ruling will likely be appealed to the state Supreme Court and the state primary is on May 20.
Early voting for the primary begins May 5.
The Republican-led Legislature approved the voter ID law last year, overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has said it plans to ask a state judge to block the law.