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Licensed to Vote

by Caleb Talley 

Arkansas’ controversial ‘voter ID’ law has been put to the test in recent days. Last week, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray granted a preliminary injunction blocking the enforcement of the infamous law passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2017. The move, decried by Arkansas’ more dextral politicians, came just days before early voting starts for the May 22 primary election.

On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state could enforce the law, if even just for the primary election. But that doesn’t mean the law is here to stay.

This would be the second time in the last four years that a judge or court has put the brakes on lawmakers’ attempts to supplement the state’s constitution with a voter identification requirement. In 2013, the General Assembly passed a law requiring voter identification at the polls. A year later, the state Supreme Court struck it down.

In 2017, legislators tried again, passing a similar bill that they said would stand up to the judicial test. It passed overwhelmingly, despite concerns from the legislature’s more legal-minded individuals, like Rep. Clarke Tucker, who said the bill had constitutional problems.

Fellow lawmaker and attorney Rep. Bob Ballinger expressed confidence in the 2017 version of the law because “we got a new court,” suggesting current justices would be willing to redefine the state constitution to better fit his convictions. Perhaps they have. Both Clarke and Ballinger are seeking their parties’ nomination to higher offices in this year’s primary.

The bill approved in 2017 requires election officials to ask to see a valid photo ID before an individual is allowed to vote. It does, however, include an interesting alternative. If you don’t have an ID, you can sign an affidavit swearing that you are registered to vote. Your vote would be counted following a comparison of your signature to the signature from your registration.

Lawmakers knew there would be challenges to the law. After all, a nearly identical measure was struck down by the Supreme Court less than four years ago. That’s why they pushed forward last spring with the approval of a ballot measure in this year’s election that would explicitly establish photo identification as a constitutionally required qualification for voting. Their logic: if our bill is unconstitutional, we’ll just change the constitution.

Both the law contested this week and the measure headed to the November ballot have been painted by Democrats as a means of restricting ballot access. It’s often wrongly compared to a poll tax. Identification cards of almost any kind cost money, which could be construed as an indirect fee for casting a ballot. But that’s not necessarily the case here.

A provision added to the voter ID ballot measure would allow those who don’t have qualified identification an opportunity to get an ID from their local county clerk’s office free of charge. Access to free identification would alleviate threat of a challenge based solely on cost.

But not everyone is going to be able to drive to the courthouse and get an ID card, even if it’s free. Consider the elderly and the infirm. For them, getting identification from the county clerk’s office could prove an undue hassle. And even if they already have identification, they’re not likely going to want to send their ID in the mail along with their absentee ballot to a complete stranger.

By my count, that makes two bad ballot measures for Arkansas’ elderly.

I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of voters identifying themselves at the ballot in order to vote. But I, for the life of me, can’t figure out why it’s being regarded as an imperative safeguard on our democracy. Perhaps, if there were widespread examples of voter fraud in Arkansas, I’d understand why we would adjust our constitution to adhere to the flimsy opinions of our current lawmakers.

But there aren’t. In fact, there are hardly any examples of fraudulent voting in Arkansas that would warrant an amendment to the state’s constitution. In arguing for the ballot measure last spring, Sen. Bryan King (who’s getting ‘primaried’ by Ballinger) referenced a report of thousands of fraudulent voter registrations. But in reality, there’s no such credible report. And according to the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative public policy think tanks in America, there have only been a couple of fraudulent voting convictions in Arkansas in the last two decades. The last example was in 2012. Before that, it was 2002. And in both cases, the fraud was perpetuated by candidates and not voters.

It seems to me that some of our most cantankerous lawmakers view voting as a privilege that they have been tasked with heavily guarding. It doesn’t take a Harvard-trained political scientist to figure that one side of the aisle benefits more from voting restrictions than the other – I won’t say which.

Instead, our lawmakers should be improving access to the polls, not limiting it. Arkansas is one of only a handful of states that still does not offer online voter registration. We put our DMV services online. Why the heck can’t we put our voter registrations online, too? Studies released in 2010 showed that states that had implemented online registration saved a good chunk of change in processing. If our conservative lawmakers were genuinely interested in saving the state money, they would consider practical ways in which to make government more efficient – online voter registration is a key example.

Last summer, when the late David Dunn, a former Arkansas lawmaker, was named to President Trump’s controversial Election Integrity Commission, he told me he would use the opportunity to bring more Arkansans to the ballot box, rather than to limit access as the commission had been accused.

He may never have gotten the chance to continue his fight for voting access, but we still have that opportunity. A number of the politicians who want to limit that access will be up for re-election this year. Let them know how your opinion with your vote. But just in case, bring an ID.


In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Read more Cash & Candor here

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