Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen said Tuesday that he'll side with Secretary of State John Thurston and throw out a pandemic-related lawsuit over the state's absentee-voting practices unless the plaintiffs can show him proof -- within a week -- that election authorities have done something wrong.
The judge outlined his position on the month-old litigation in a seven-page ruling that states that the three plaintiffs have not shown any evidence that they "have suffered or face imminent danger of suffering any injury protected by law" related to the actions of the secretary of state.
"Simply put, this complaint does not allege a legal controversy," Griffen wrote.
The judge's decision comes four days after hearing arguments from the parties via internet broadcast. The ruling allows the lawsuit to be refiled if the plaintiffs can come up with evidence showing they've been harmed by the secretary of state's absentee-voting practices.
The plaintiffs are Olly Neal Jr., a retired Arkansas Court of Appeals judge; Susan Inman, a former state elections director who was Thurston's Democratic challenger; and civil rights attorney Jan Baker. They sued Thurston, a Republican and the state's chief election administrator, last month to force him to comply with absentee-voting standards set in a 1985 Arkansas Supreme Court decision.
Arkansas voters must cast their ballots at the polls or explain to election administrators why they should be allowed to vote absentee, either by mailing in a ballot or dropping one off ahead of the election.
The 1985 high court decision requires election officials to accept any honest explanation for why a voter cannot go to the polls on Election Day and further limits authorities' power to question that explanation.
The plaintiffs, all in their 70s and some with health issues, sued because Thurston appeared to be following a more restrictive standard for mail-in and drop-in voting than the 35-year court ruling, and they had concerns that Thurston would not accept fear of the covid-19 infection as sufficient explanation to vote absentee.
Two days after the lawsuit was filed, Thurston issued a statement acknowledging that fear of infection was an acceptable reason for voting absentee, and he repeated that assertion in his motion to dismiss the lawsuit as evidence that the plaintiffs had no grounds to sue.
In Griffen's ruling, the judge noted that none of the plaintiffs have been denied an absentee ballot or even threatened with being denied an absentee ballot, and there is no evidence that any of them even applied for a ballot.
Further, they showed no evidence that Thurston had made an effort to get local voting authorities -- the county clerks -- to deny absentee-ballot applications to anyone who cited fear of infection as a reason for voting absentee, Griffen wrote.