The Arkansas Supreme Court declared the state's voter-identification law constitutional Thursday, upholding the law's requirement that voters present certain forms of photo identification when they appear at the polls in just a few weeks.
The justices, in a 5-2 vote, chose to send a poll worker's challenge of the 2017 law back to a lower court for further deliberations -- along with the instruction that the law, Act 633 of 2017, was not clearly unconstitutional.
The high court's decision comes even as voters in the Nov. 6 election will decide whether to enshrine voter-identification requirements in the Arkansas Constitution through an amendment. The amendment was proposed last year by the Republican-majority Legislature. Early voting in this year's Nov. 6 general election begins Oct. 22.
Republicans have for years sought to require IDs at the polls -- which they argue increases voter security -- while opponents have argued that such laws do little more than disenfranchise elderly, poor and minority-group voters who may lack identification such as driver's licenses.
While legislatures in 34 states have succeeded in enacting some form of voter-identification requirements, lawmakers in Arkansas have been largely stifled by court decisions invalidating such laws.
Lawmakers passed Act 633 -- a reworking of the Arkansas Constitution's voter registration provisions under Amendment 51 -- after the Supreme Court in 2014 struck down an earlier voter-ID law that the court's majority said improperly added requirements to the process of voting itself.
A minority of the court's justices in 2014 invalidated the earlier law -- Act 595 of 2013 -- on different grounds, saying the law had not passed in the Legislature with enough votes. Act 633 passed with a two-thirds majority in 2017, eliminating that hurdle.
"We cannot say that Act 633's constitutional amendment is clearly not germane to Amendment 51 and not consistent with its policy and purpose," Justice Robin Wynne wrote for the majority. "It is therefore constitutional."
Joining Wynne in the majority were Justices Courtney Goodson, Rhonda Wood, Shawn Womack and Karen Baker.
In a dissent, Justice Josephine Hart wrote that showing a photo ID at the polling place "was simply not part of the registration process." Chief Justice Dan Kemp joined Hart's dissent.
"Like the circuit court, I find it telling that 'an individual registering to vote is not required to provide photo identification,'" Hart wrote. "If providing photo identification were required at registration, requiring presentation of the card at the polling place would be more defensible."
After Thursday's ruling, election officials said they were working to educate voters and poll workers about the law, which has been under enforcement since August 2017, with the exception of a one-week hiatus in May when the enforcement was barred under the ruling of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray.
Under Act 633, voters who fail to present photo identification may cast provisional ballots. They must either sign a sworn statement attesting to their identities or present the required IDs to their county election commissioners or clerks by the Monday after the election. If the voter takes those steps, and no other reason is found to discount his ballot, his vote will be counted.
The Pulaski County Election Commission, which covers the most populous county in the state, issued a news release Thursday reminding voters of the new photo-ID requirement and the types of identification that can fulfill the requirement. Those IDs include driver's licenses, passports, state or federal employee IDs, student IDs from Arkansas colleges and voter ID cards issued by the county clerk.
"We anticipated ... that the voter ID law will be in place when the general election rolls around," said Bryan Poe, the Pulaski County director of elections.
After Gray found the law unconstitutional in late April, the Supreme Court overturned her preliminary injunction and allowed the law to be enforced during the primaries, while allowing the justices more time to review the case before the November election. The decision Thursday sends the case back to Gray for a final ruling.
"We appreciate the court issuing the ruling on this before the election so that there's no confusion among poll workers and voters," said Chris Powell, a spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin, who was a defendant in the lawsuit seeking to strike down the law.
But opponents of the voter-ID requirements expressed fears Thursday that the decision could invalidate crucial votes during the general election, which features races for the state Legislature, Congress, governor and other statewide offices, local offices, as well as ballot issues.
In a sworn affidavit earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said that more than 1,000 voters -- most of them absentee -- did not have their ballots counted during the 2014 primaries, when the earlier law was in effect, because of a lack of IDs.
While Act 595 of 2013 did not allow voters to attest to their identities through sworn affidavits, its voter-identification requirements are nearly identical to those in place under the current law, Act 633.
"We're disappointed for those Arkansans who will be affected by this [ruling] and who will not have their votes counted by voter ID," said Jeff Priebe, an attorney for poll worker Barry Haas, the plaintiff in the lawsuit.
In addition to approving a law on the state's current voter-ID requirements, lawmakers in 2017 referred a constitutional amendment to the voters that would make showing a photo ID one of the qualifications to vote. That measure is now Issue 2 on the November ballot.
State Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, who sponsored Act 633, said he has "no concern at all" that ID requirements will invalidate ballots from otherwise qualified voters.
A Section on 10/12/2018
Print Headline: Voter-ID law ruled constitutional