LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ new voter ID law had only been in effect for two weeks when it became the focus of confusion and controversy in a special election for a state Senate seat last week.
The ACLU said the law violated Craighead County voters’ rights, while the law’s sponsor said some problems are to be expected when voting laws change.
Act 595 of 2013 requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls and to include some type of ID, not necessarily with a photo, when voting by absentee ballot. It requires county clerks to provide voter ID cards on request at no charge, using equipment funded by the secretary of state’s office.
The measure was fiercely debated during last year’s legislative session, with supporters saying it would prevent voter fraud and opponents saying it would disenfranchise voters such as the poor and elderly who are less likely than others to have photo ID. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the legislation, but the Republican-led House and Senate overrode his veto and the measure became law Jan. 1.
On Tuesday, Republican John Cooper soundly defeated Democrat Steve Rockwell in the race for the District 21 state Senate seat vacated by the resignation last year of Democrat Paul Bookout. The initial, unofficial vote count had Cooper receiving 4,314 votes and Rockwell receiving 3,227.
Craighead County Election Commission Chairman Scott McDaniel said that to his knowledge no one showed up at the polls without a photo ID, but of the 134 absentee ballots received, about 75 were not accompanied by any form of ID. The ballots were set aside and not included in the initial vote count.
McDaniel said that although the number of ballots in question was too small to make a difference in the election’s outcome, future elections could be closer, so it was important to determine what the law required.
He said the state Board of Election Commissioners advised him not to count the ballots because the law says ID must accompany absentee ballots, but the secretary of state’s office later advised him that a cure period provided in the law for people who fail to show photo ID at the polls should apply also to people who submit absentee ballots without ID.
Faced with two contradictory recommendations, the county Election Commission chose to follow the secretary of state’s advice.
The cure period allows a person who has cast a provisional ballot to present ID at the court clerk’s office by noon on the Monday after the election to have the ballot counted. McDaniel said voters in this case will have until noon Tuesday because Monday is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
All absentee voters were given written instructions that stated a copy of ID was required, but the new requirement was easy to miss, according to McDaniel.
"It doesn’t jump out at you," he said. "It’s not bold, it’s not in italics, it’s not in red ink, nothing like that. It’s just another line."
McDaniel said he hopes more will be done to educate voters and to make sure election officials know how the law is to be interpreted before the May primary election.
Alex Reed, spokesman for Secretary of State Mark Martin, said that "we’re looking at entering into some contracts for advertising and things like that" to educate the public about the voter ID law in advance of the May primary.
"We’re also talking with the state Board (of Election Commissioners) to try to come up with a solution to the contradictory statements," he said.
The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said its predictions that the law would disenfranchise voters had come true.
"It is going to take a lawsuit, a special session, or both to clear up this mess. We stand ready to represent affected voters, in Craighead County and elsewhere across the state," said Rita Sklar, executive director of ACLU of Arkansas.
The sponsor of Act 595, Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, said some problems are to be expected whenever voting laws change and said there is time to address the issues before May.
He added, "The ACLU claimed that (requiring) photo ID was going to stop people from voting, and … they didn’t have any problem with the in-person voting requirement."
The U.S. Supreme Court said in 2008, in a ruling that upheld a voter ID law in Indiana, that states can require voters to show photo ID at the polls. On Friday, however, a state judge in Pennsylvania struck down that state’s voter ID law, saying it did not further the goal of assuring a free and fair election.