State not immune to voting suit; election measures to proceed to Arkansas Supreme Court

FILE — The Arkansas Supreme Court is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The Arkansas Supreme Court is shown in this undated file photo.

The legality of a quartet of Republican-backed Arkansas election measures will be decided by the state Supreme Court following a ruling Friday that sovereign immunity does not shield the measures from a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen rejected all state lawyers' arguments to dismiss the 4-month-old litigation, ruling that the plaintiffs -- the League of Women Voters, immigrant advocates Arkansas United and five Arkansas voters -- met the legal standard to overcome the state's defenses at this stage of the proceedings.

The plaintiffs say the new election laws put their voting rights at risk in an unconstitutional attack on poor and minority voters. Griffen's ruling is not a decision on the merits of those accusations but a ruling on the state's legal arguments to dismiss the suit.

The laws at issue are Act 249, involving voter identification; Act 728, regulating campaigning around the polls during voting; Act 736, affecting how ballots are validated; and Act 973, which sets deadlines for mail-in absentee ballots.

Supporters say the measures are necessary to strengthen election integrity and improve public confidence in the system. The General Assembly passed 24 laws related to election operations this year.

Claims by lawyers for defendants Secretary of State John Thurston and the state Board of Election Commissioners that they cannot be sued because of sovereign immunity are "without merit" because of claims that the laws violate both the state and federal constitutions, Griffen ruled.

State lawyers are obligated to immediately appeal such a decision or the defense is waived. The judge's findings will be issued in writing within two weeks.