Arguments Set For This Week In Arkansas Voter ID Case

Sep 28, 2014

A sign outside a Little Rock polling location in March reminds voters to have a photo ID ready.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas' highest court is set to take up a case this week that could decide whether the state's voters will be required to show photo identification at the polls in the November election.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the lawsuit over Arkansas' voter ID law, which took effect in January. With a U.S. Senate race that could determine which party controls that chamber, how the court rules could have national implications.

Here's what to know about the state's voter ID law, and the case before the Supreme Court:

THE LAW

The Republican-led Legislature approved the voter ID law last year, overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. At the time, Beebe called the proposal an "expensive solution in search of a problem."

Under the law, which took effect Jan. 1, voters who don't show photo identification are allowed to cast a provisional ballot. That ballot would be counted only if they provide an ID to county election officials or sign an affidavit stating they are indigent or have a religious objection to being photographed by noon Monday following the election. Absentee voters are required to include a copy of their ID - or some other government document such as a utility bill that shows their name and address - with their ballots, but the law doesn't include a cure period if they don't.

The law also requires Arkansas to provide free photo IDs to voters who don't have one.

Thirty-two states have laws requiring voters to show some form of identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states have strict photo ID requirements similar to Arkansas.

THE LAWSUIT

The state is appealing Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox's decision in May that the law violated Arkansas' constitution. Fox suspended his ruling, however, allowing the state to continue enforcing the voter ID law. The law is still in effect while the court hears the appeal.

Fox ruled in a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Law Center. The groups were suing on behalf of four voters they said would be disenfranchised by the law. The groups have also asked Fox to lift his stay, though he hasn't ruled on that motion.

Fox had previously struck down the law in a separate case that focused on the handling of absentee ballots, but the Supreme Court tossed out that ruling.

THE ARGUMENTS

The state argues that Fox overstepped his authority by issuing a preliminary injunction against the law, saying opponents of the law failed to prove that requiring voters to show photo identification amounted to a new qualification for voters. The state argues that the voter ID law is a procedural requirement that ensures those who are qualified to vote are doing so.

The groups opposing the law have cited previous Arkansas Supreme Court rulings that struck down certain voting requirements, including an 1865 decision that threw out a law requiring that voters sign an oath saying they hadn't aided Confederate authorities after 1864, and various decisions regarding poll taxes.

THE IMPLICATIONS

It's unclear when the court will issue a ruling in the case, but they face a narrow window before voters start casting ballots for the Nov. 4 election. Early voting for the election is set to begin Oct. 20, and the deadline to register to vote is Oct. 6.

The ruling could have major implications for the tight race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. The race is one of the most expensive and closely watched in the country, and is key to Republicans' efforts to win a majority in the Senate.

Democrats have said voter ID laws suppress voting by minorities and students, while Republicans say they help prevent vote fraud.

HOW TO WATCH

Oral arguments are open to the public at the Justice Building near the state Capitol, but there's limited seating. You can also watch a livestream of the arguments online at this link