The drive to require photo identification at polling sites is well on its way to becoming law. The debate has been marked by concerns over voter suppression and the integrity of the electoral process. Tensions have been high throughout its course in the legislature. This Tuesday’s floor session was no exception.
The majority Democrat Rules Committee presented lead sponsor, Senator Bryan King (R) with a Constitutional obstacle. The Rules Committee argued that SB 2 altered Amendment 51, sections 5-15 of the Arkansas Constitution and thus required a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority vote.
This section of the constitution has to do with the prescribing of various voting requirements. On the floor, the Senate received the ruling and immediately moved to consider whether to sustain or overrule the two-thirds requirement.
Senator Stephanie Flowers (D) opened the debate for those in support of the Rules Committee by appealing to historical injustices, “In the history of my people (blacks), it’s been very difficult to vote.”
Senator Flowers urged her fellow legislators to ask, “What does our Constitution provide for how the General Assembly should act when changing the Constitution?” Flowers’s closing remark moved beyond voting procedure and toward her opinion of SB 2, “before we start discouraging people from voting in the state of Arkansas we need to follow the process put forth in our Constitution.”
Senator King’s (R) followed with a response noteworthy for its brevity, which addressed the Constitutional critique by asking, “Where have you been with this criticism until now?” King chastised those supporting the Rules Committee by noting that he’s been pushing this bill for two years and not until today has he heard this specific challenge.
This was followed by an emotional, autobiographical speech from Senator Joyce Elliott (D). With a quivering voice, Elliott told the chamber that she was first confronted with the politics of voting at age nine, when her grandmother, grandfather, and “all the old people” were whispering about poll taxes.
She noted, fighting back tears, that even in the privacy of their home they felt compelled to whisper. Elliott ended her time on the floor with a heartfelt appeal to her fellow Senators, “I never dreamed that I would have to face the same kind of things…I’ll try to live with it, but I hope I don’t have to.”
When Elliott sat down, the usual clamor and clangor of the Senate was replaced with a hushed aura of tenseness and seriousness reflecting the weight and power of a legislative body. Aside from Senator Teague, who was busy devouring an ice cream bar.
Republican Jason Rapert of Conway rose to reclaim the tone in the chamber. He began by stating, “I respect the passion of Senator Elliott on the issue.” Rapert’s analysis of Amendment 51 concluded that it applies to voting requirements, not the process of verifying identity at the polls.
Senator Rapert distanced himself from claims of voter suppression by firmly stating that, “I would be against it completely if this is what Senator Elliott says it is.”
He ended his support of overturning the Rules Committee decision by advocating his support for SB 2, “It is not too much to ask for someone to present their I.D.”
Linda Chesterfield (D) stepped up after Senator Rapert, to speak in support of the Rules Committee decision. Chesterfield countered Rapert’s analysis of the relevance of Amendment 51 stating that SB 2 requires, “a new method of identification to vote. It’s either that simple, or that complicated.”
She echoed her comments from past sessions, noting, “voter suppression takes place because obstacles are put in people’s way.”
Republican Senator Alan Clark offered the final comment on the Rules Committee Ruling, which served to reinforce Senator Rapert’s assessment of Amendment 51.
The Senate voted to reject the Rules Committee decision, with 21 votes in favor of overturning the ruling and 13 votes in favor of upholding the ruling. The vote was along partisan lines, with Senator Cheatham (D) excusing himself from the Chamber for the rules vote. The bill was then placed on the top of the day’s calendar and passed by a vote of 22-12.
Senator Teague (D) was the lone Democrat in support of the bill, while Bruce Maloch (D) did not cast a ballot. Both Senators voted with the Democrats on the previous vote. The bill has been sent to the Governor, who still has not indicated whether or not he would consider vetoing the legislation.