Suit urges challenges of ballot rejections

League, others ask judge to allow discrepancy corrections before election

Absentee voters should be allowed to challenge the state Election Commission's rejection of their ballots due to signature discrepancies, as doing so "bolsters rather than hinders" the integrity of the election, the League of Women Voters argued this week in its federal lawsuit pending in Fayetteville.

The League and three individuals are suing Secretary of State John Thurston and six members of the state Board of Election Commissioners. They want U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes of the state's Western District to require the state to allow absentee voters to correct discrepancies before Election Day, just over two weeks away, to ensure their ballots aren't rejected over a technicality or because of poor penmanship.

Under the current system, voters are notified by mail after the election if there was a discrepancy and their ballots were thrown out, said Little Rock attorney David Couch, who represents the plaintiffs.

In a response filed Tuesday to the state's request that Holmes throw out the lawsuit and deny the League's request for an injunction, the League said Thurston and the board "ignore the key issue in this case."

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That issue, they said, is that without an injunction, absentee voters who aren't given an opportunity to cure rejections based on signature deficiencies will be left "with absolutely no recourse against erroneous disenfranchisement."

They noted that once a voter has submitted an absentee ballot, the voter can't cast an in-person ballot that will count or apply for a second absentee ballot even if, unbeknownst to them, the first is rejected because of a signature issue.

"Defendants ignore that this lack of notice and cure is why hundreds of absentee ballots cast by eligible voters were rejected in 2016 and 2018, and do not dispute that more legitimate ballots will be rejected in future elections," the League argued in the latest filing.

The League also asserted that the state cannot "seriously contest" that the state's signature-matching requirement is "error prone," that officials are capable of contacting voters whose ballots have minor discrepancies and that the state already allows absentee voters with other ballot deficiencies an opportunity to cure the deficiency.

Citing an Oct. 7 New York Times article, attorneys for the plaintiffs said, "Arkansas is an outlier nationally, as it is one of only four states in the United States that currently requires signature matching and does not provide for any opportunity to cure."

The other three states are Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia match signature and allow voters to fix the mismatches, according to the article.

The League's response also attacks legal arguments made on the state's behalf about whether the plaintiffs have legal standing -- a vested interest in the outcome -- allowing them to pursue the case. It notes that hat they have clearly demonstrated that "concrete injuries" are at stake.

The state's position that the plaintiffs lack a legitimate complaint about their liberty interests when absentee ballots are rejected for technical deficiencies is "at odds with virtually every court in the country to consider the issue," the filing states.

The plaintiffs' request for relief "poses a negligible burden on the state," they added.

Last week, Holmes denied a motion from the League to expedite the case. The League asked that the case be fast-tracked to make sure county election commissioners begin the process of comparing absentee ballot signatures to registration signatures 15 days before the Nov. 3 election.

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.