The voter ID law passed by Arkansas legislators last year is unconstitutional and should be struck down, a new lawsuit claims. If left to stand, the law could affect a crucial Senate race this fall.
In a complaint filed Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas charges that by requiring photo ID, the measure violates the state constitution’s prohibition on laws that impair the right to vote.
"People who have been qualified to vote their entire adult lives are now being blocked from doing so by this unnecessary and unconstitutional law," Rita Sklar, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. "The state should be ashamed of making it harder for eligible voters from exercising this most fundamental right than our own Constitution requires."
The measure requires that voters present a limited range of government-approved forms of identification. Out-of-state college IDs, for instance, are not allowed. Voters without ID must cast a provisional ballot, then go to the county clerk to affirm that they’re too “indigent” to afford ID. And unlike some other states’ ID laws, this one does nothing to help voters get ID, such as providing transportation to government offices.
The challengers include three Arkansans who lack the ID needed to vote. One of them, 78-year-old Joe Flakes, also was never issued a birth certificate. That means he’d need to go to court to get a birth certificate, before applying for an ID. Using national estimates, the ACLU of Arkansas says around 10% of state residents lack the necessary ID.
The law was approved last year by Arkansas’ GOP-controlled legislature, but it was vetoed by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, who said it “unnecessarily restricts and impairs our citizens’ right to vote.” Lawmakers then overrode Beebe’s veto.
The law could make it harder for key Democratic groups, including minorities and students, to get to the polls this fall. Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is one of the party's most vulnerable incumbents this cycle, and the race could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
The ACLU's lawsuit cites an 1865 ruling by the state Supreme Court, holding that laws depriving qualified voters of the right to vote are unconstitutional. That decision overturned an 1864 law passed by Unionists that disenfranchised anyone still supporting the Confederacy.
Voting rights advocates have had some success challenging voter ID laws on the basis of state guarantees of the right to vote. A Pennsylvania judge earlier this year struck down that state’s ID law on that basis. Texas' and North Carolina’s voter ID laws, by contrast, are being challenged under the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires that challengers prove racial discrimination.
Arkansas was not covered under Section 5 of the VRA, which, until it was neutered by the Supreme Court last summer, required that most southern states get federal approval before changing their voting laws.