Groups ask state high court to strike voter-ID law

With the question of the legality of Arkansas' voter-identification requirement pending before the state Supreme Court, college professors, black lawyers and civil-rights groups are asking the high court to strike down the law.

They contend the ID requirement does little to prevent voter fraud but will keep "thousands" of voters, mainly members of minority groups and poor residents, from casting ballots.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the W. Harold Flowers Law Society, Pulaski County Circuit/County Clerk Larry Crane, the People First Voting Project and college professors Thomas DeBlack, William Schreckhise, John DiPippa and Nate Coulter present their arguments, independently, in four amicus curiae briefs that challenge the constitutionality of the law.

Also known as "friend-of-the-court" briefs, the amicus filings, submitted to the court ahead of its coming decision, don't have to address the legal aspects of the case but can offer professional opinions and scientific studies to help the court decide the case. There's no guarantee that the court will consider any of the filings, even if it accepts them.

Final written arguments by the defenders of the identification requirement, Secretary of State Mark Martin and the state Board of Election Commissioners, are due Tuesday. The court hasn't said when it will rule.

Martin and the commissioners have asked the high court to reject the amicus filings, arguing that they are either irrelevant or raise arguments that the identification defenders haven't had time to address.

The court is preparing to decide the legality of the ID law in an appeal of a May ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox that invalidated Act 595 of 2013 in a lawsuit filed by four voters challenging the ID requirement's constitutionality.

Appeal proceedings have been expedited to give the Supreme Court time to decide the issue before the November general election. Early voting begins Oct. 20.

The election commissioners, represented by the attorney general's office, contend that Fox failed to follow court-mandated guidelines when he made his ruling. In their appeal, the commissioners argue that Fox did not apply the correct standard to evaluate Act 595 when he invalidated it. The officials say Fox is required by court precedent, which dates back at least to 1938, to begin his analysis of the law with the presumption that it is in accord with the constitution.

In his defense argument, the secretary of state's lawyers contend that the law is protected by sovereign immunity and that Fox exceeded his authority because the plaintiffs failed to prove that they would suffer any harm from the identification law, which provides free ID cards for voters who can't afford other permissible identification or can't qualify for them.

Fox's ruling came out of a lawsuit, filed in April, by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arkansas Public Law Center that included plaintiffs who are legally registered voters but contend they either can't obtain the identification required to cast ballots -- photo cards issued by the government or state-approved schools -- or cannot get identification without significant expense and effort.

The plaintiffs are Joe Nathan Flakes, 78; Toylanda Smith, 23; Freedom Lynn Kohls, 33, and Barry Haas.

Fox ruled that since lawmakers' votes to approve the law fell short of the two-thirds majority required for the General Assembly to amend the state constitution, the identification requirement was illegal. Voting requirements are set by Article 3 of the constitution, which puts only four restrictions on voter qualifications -- requirements on age, citizenship, residency and registration.

Lawmakers never met that two-thirds threshold, despite having to vote twice to approve the requirement to overcome Gov. Mike Beebe's veto.

Fox also found Act 595 to be unlawful because of the timing of when voters are required to show their identifications.

The demand for ID at the ballot box amounts to a registration restriction imposed after the deadline set by Amendment 51 of the constitution for voters to have registered to cast ballots, Fox ruled.

The constitution requires voters to be registered at least 30 days before an election. Under Article 3, once a voter is registered, the Legislature cannot impose further registration requirements, the judge's ruling states.

Fox had earlier decided that the law was unconstitutional in a lawsuit involving absentee voters. The Supreme Court overturned his decision but not on the merits of his ruling. The high court ruled that he had not been asked to determine the law's constitutionality in that case.

Co-sponsoring the brief from the NAACP defense fund and Flowers Law Society are the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Arkansas Community Organizations, Arkansas Homeless Coalition, The King's Outreach, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Trans Equality Coalition, Center for Artistic Revolution, Disability Rights Center of Arkansas, Interfaith Alliance of Arkansas, Just Community of Arkansas, League of Women Voters of Arkansas and of Pulaski and Washington counties, National Organization for Women -- Arkansas and Little Rock, and Rock of Hope.

Metro on 09/01/2014

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