The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson legislation that would change Arkansas' voter-identification law by removing a section that allows voters without proper IDs to have their ballots counted by signing their names.
The Senate voted 25-9 to send House Bill 1112 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, to the Republican governor, over the objections of Democratic opponents who warned that it would reduce the number of voters at the polls in Arkansas.
Twenty-five of the 27 Republican senators voted for the bill, while all seven Democratic senators and Sens. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs, voted against it. Sen. Garry Stubblefield, R-Branch, was excused.
The bill required 24 votes in the 35-member Senate to pass because it would amend Amendment 51 of the Arkansas Constitution.
Asked if he has decided to sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature, Hutchinson said Wednesday in a written statement, "I will review the bill and make a decision on it next week."
Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, who presented HB1112 to the Senate, said the bill strips from state law a provision that enables voters to sign a sworn statement in order for a provisional ballot to be counted in lieu of presenting their photo IDs because "there is no real standard for what is verification of the signature."
"Many people have had concerns with that particular provision, [that it] had been abused," he said.
"The simple thing is that if someone misrepresents who someone is, either that they are eligible or they are that person, then they are in effect stealing the vote from that person," Johnson said. "Some people like to scream voter suppression. The fact of the matter is the only thing that this will suppress is someone who is trying to vote illegally."
Hendren asked Johnson if anybody has been charged with perjury for misrepresenting himself in a sworn statement about a name on a provisional ballot to be counted.
Johnson said he was not sure about that.
But he said the bill would no longer put the burden on the election officials to make the determination about whether someone has perjured himself in a sworn statement about a name in order for a provisional ballot to be counted.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said "what we are saying now is that the words of the citizens of this state ... don't mean anything anymore.
"If I go in, I can get my license. I can sign it and say I am who I am and we take their word, and then we have an opportunity to cure that ballot later," she said. "We rank 50th in citizen voting, and we do not need one more obstacle to their being able to cast their vote."
The bill would adversely affect senior citizens because many of them don't have documents with their pictures on them, Chesterfield said.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, questioned why some people don't want "absolute security and integrity" in voting.
"Why in the world are we fighting about requiring photo ID that everyone of you [has] in your pocket? Every single one of you," he said.
Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said, "When [proponents of the bill] continue to say it isn't about voter suppression, it is about voter suppression.
"You hear all the time that dead people voted. Bring it forward, show us, because that's the job of the prosecuting attorney to take that up, but yet nothing is ever brought before us that is valid," he said. "It is always hearsay."
Ingram said the vast majority of provisional ballots were filed because of a problem with data.
"We should make it easier for people to vote, not making it more difficult under the guise that there is tremendous fraud that is perpetuated," he said.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said "this provisional ballot process is more than just about voter ID.
"It is about confusion and anarchy," he said. "It adds to our political and election process that create issues moving forward. Right now, you have a loophole in our voter ID system, something that we need to correct in the state of Arkansas."
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for voter ID laws, lists just three instances of voter fraud in Arkansas dating back to 2002, according to its nationwide database. The most recent case was in 2016.
After the record nationwide turnout in 2020, lawmakers in at least 28 states have filed more than 100 pieces of legislation that would restrict voting access mainly by limiting mail-in ballots, purging voter rolls or enacting stricter voter ID requirements, according to a review by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. The nonprofit group also identified 406 pieces of legislation in 35 states aimed at expanding voter access.
Allegations of voter fraud have been made by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, but officials in various states found no evidence of fraud on that scale.
Under the 2017 voter ID law authored by Lowery, forms of identification that may be accepted by election officials include a driver's license, passport, employee or student ID from an accredited college in Arkansas, a military ID or other state- or federal-issued photo ID card.
The law also requires the secretary of state's office to issue free photo ID cards to voters who lack valid identification.
Lowery, the author of the state's current voter-ID law, told a House committee earlier this month that HB1112 was not inspired by a prevalence of voter fraud, but rather the lack of any uniform standard for county officials to determine whether a voter's signature matched with his sworn statement allowing a provisional ballot to be counted.
On his social media accounts, however, Lowery has repeatedly shared inaccurate posts depicting the 2020 election as rife with fraud and challenging President Joe Biden's win.
"I never used the word fraud, not one time in my presentation," Lowery said earlier this month. "I did not claim that there was fraud, I didn't do that in 2017 when I presented the voter ID bill, but what I did do is base the whole bill on studies that say that the faith in the election system has been eroded, slowly but surely."
Meanwhile, a bill to permit electronic voter registration in Arkansas gained approval from a House committee Wednesday.
House Bill 1517, by Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, is in part the product of efforts by an informal legislative working group focused on election security, Boyd told the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
"This is a bill about modernization," Boyd said.
The legislation allows the secretary of state to develop a process by which state residents can register to vote online, said Kurt Naumann, director of administration and government relations for Republican Secretary of State John Thurston.
Arkansas would join 40 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing online voter registration, according to a 2020 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The new system would not replace an existing process that allows people to register to vote at state revenue offices.
Naumann added that a federal Help America Vote Act grant would fund the new system, so there would be no increased cost to Arkansas residents.
A voice vote with no audible opposition sent the bill to the House floor for further consideration.
Information for this article was contributed by Rachel Herzog and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.