A civil liberties group filed suit this week to block a new Arkansas law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls before it is enforced for the first time statewide in the primary election next month.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed the suit in Pulaski County court on behalf of four voters it says will be harmed by the law, which was approved by the Republican-led Legislature last year. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the measure, but lawmakers overrode his objection with simple majority votes in the House and Senate.
"This puts more burdens on the voter than the Arkansas constitution permits...It only creates more trouble for people who have been voting all their lives," Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas, told reporters after the lawsuit was filed. "It throws hurdles in front of them instead of making it easier for them to participate in the democratic process."
The new law is being challenged when the state is in the national political spotlight because of a hotly contested race that could tip the majority in the U.S. Senate. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is being challenged by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. Neither faces an opponent in the primary but outside money is pouring into Arkansas for advertising months before the general election in November.
The lawsuit, which names Secretary of State Mark Martin and the state Board of Election Commissioners as defendants, says the voter ID law violates Arkansas' constitution. The lawsuit, which also was backed by civil rights advocacy group Arkansas Public Law Center, says the requirement "placed additional qualifications and impairments on Arkansas citizens before they can exercise their state constitutional right to vote."
A spokesman for Martin said his office was reviewing the lawsuit and would respond in court. The senator who sponsored the law said he was confident it would be upheld.
"The ACLU does what the ACLU does. To me they're trying to be an obstacle in ensuring voter integrity at the polls," said Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.
The voters cited by the lawsuit include Barry Haas, a Pulaski County resident who refused to show ID when casting a ballot in a March 11 special election. According to the suit, Haas cast a provisional ballot that wasn't counted since he didn't show ID. Another voter, 78-year-old Joe Flakes, doesn't have a photo ID because he was never issued a birth certificate by the state. The ACLU said Flakes was delivered by a midwife who did not properly record his birth.
While the law was used in some local elections earlier this year it will be used statewide for the first time during early voting beginning May 5 and on primary election day, May 20.
The ACLU said it planned to later ask for a preliminary injunction blocking the law's enforcement while the challenge is being considered.
Thirty-one states have laws in effect requiring voters to show some form of identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states have strict photo ID requirements similar to Arkansas. Voter ID laws have been put on hold in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because of court challenges.
The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the state from enforcing the ID requirement, which took effect on Jan. 1, in the primary.
Under previous law, election workers were required to ask for photo ID but voters don't have to show it to cast a ballot. Under the new law, voters who don't show photo identification can cast provisional ballots. Those ballots would be counted only if voters provide ID to county election officials before noon on the Monday following an election, sign an affidavit stating they are indigent or have a religious objection to being photographed.
Arkansas Republicans had pushed for voter ID requirements for years, but the measure failed to reach the governor's desk under Democratic majorities. Republicans in 2012 won control of the Legislature for the first time in 138 years and have enjoyed a number of successes, including the passage of stricter anti-abortion laws and broader gun rights.
The lawsuit is the second related to the new ID requirements although the challenge Wednesday is the first challenging the law directly. The Pulaski County Election Commission has sued the state Board of Election Commissioners for adopting a rule that gives absentee voters additional time to show proof of ID.