Politics

Arkansas Tossed Ballot Of 79-Year-Old Woman Who Has Been Voting Since Jim Crow

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Joy Dunn, 79, recalls what it was like to pay a poll tax during the Jim Crow era.

LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS—In a small one-story house filled with knickknacks and stuffed animals, Joy Dunn sat at her dining room table going over her absentee ballot. Turning the pages with long fingernails painted fire engine red, she said she wanted to make sure she had everything in order, as the vote she cast in March’s special election was never counted.

“I got a letter saying my vote wasn’t counted because I didn’t have ID. But I’ve been voting in this state since 1954 and I never had to have ID,” she told ThinkProgress. “I didn’t know I was supposed to send in an ID this time. Nobody told me.”

Dunn, who just turned 79, has several forms of valid ID, but says she was never notified that she had to include a copy of it with her absentee ballot. Arkansas is one of a tiny handful of state to require copies of ID from absentee voters, and the only state in the nation to make those over age 65 do. The only exceptions to this rule are for active duty service members and their spouses and residents of long-term care or residential care facilities.

This time, Joy is aware of the requirement, but it hasn’t been easy for her to meet it. Because of a foot injury that left her unable to drive, she had to ask a neighbor to take her drivers’ license to the library and bring her back a photocopy to include with her ballot. “I had to depend on somebody to go do it for me and that’s a hardship on me,” she said. “And most people don’t even have that kind of help! I think it’s unfair for a lot of us older people.”

She said this hardship reminded her of the very first time she cast a ballot, in Little Rock in 1954. She was forced to pay a $2 poll tax, which she said was “not much more” than people made working a full day’s shift. “It was a little white slip, looked like a rent receipt,” she said. “You had to have that slip to vote.”

Echoing comments made by the US Attorney General, members of Congress, and a federal district judge, Dunn said voter ID laws are the modern day equivalent of those poll taxes. “This is to do anything they can to stop some folks from voting,” she said.

Dunn is one of hundreds of eligible voters who have had their votes disqualified since the state implemented its voter ID law in January. Representing four of those voters, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Arkansas earlier this year, saying the law violates the state’s constitution and asking for it to be enjoined. A ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court is expected any day now.

The confusion was exacerbated because the voter ID law itself included no plan and no budget whatsoever for reaching out and educating voters like Joy. While other states have spent millions just to raise public awareness of voter ID laws, Arkansas budgeted only $300,000 for the entire implementation of the ID law in all 75 counties, including machines to print new IDs.

“We’ll do whatever we can with the existing money that we have,” the Secretary of State’s office told the Arkansas New Bureau earlier this year.

The existing money didn’t amount to much. “They rented a few billboards and did some radio ads, but they didn’t even rent those billboards until May for the May primary,” ACLU Arkansas’ Holly Dickson said. “It would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so great.”

In Craighead County, absentee voters who failed to submit an ID were given a ‘grace period’ until the Monday following the election to come in and show an ID to have their ballot counted. The county put a notice in the local newspaper with the full name of everyone who voted absentee, and told them to come in and show a valid ID to have their ballot counted.

Other counties simply declared the submitted absentee ballots without ID null and void, and made no attempt to contact the affected voters.

“Differing county election commissions treating voters differently in the same circumstances created a whole new Equal Protection problem,” said Dickson.

Pulaski County, where Joy Dunn lives, chose to sue the state government, arguing the creation of the grace period was writing law ad hoc. Dickson told ThinkProgress she agrees. “It was a ridiculous attempt at a cure,” she said. “The absentee voters didn’t even know they needed to do this, and besides that, there’s a reason we allow people to vote absentee: you have to be unavoidably absent from the polls because of a disability or travel or something. Those situations don’t go away when you need come show an ID.”

Early voting begins in Arkansas in less than two weeks, but Dickson says it’s a “false perception” that the state’s Supreme Court must rule by then. The real deadline, she says, is Election Day, when the ballots are counted. If the court rules to strike down the law, counties can simply count all the provisional ballots lacking an ID as legitimately cast.

But such a late ruling will not help those discouraged by the voter ID law from attempting to vote in the first place, nor those misinformed when they arrive the polls. “When you go to vote, there’s a sign that says, ‘Please have your ID ready,'” said Dickson. “But it doesn’t explain that if you don’t have your ID, you can ask the clerk for a provisional ballot. Voters could be turned away.”

A new study by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office found that recent voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee depressed election turnout, with African Americans disproportionately affected. They concluded that tens of thousands of eligible voters would have cast a ballot had the ID restrictions not been in place. Meanwhile, the threat of voter fraud used to justify these laws has been found to be virtually nonexistent.

Joy Dunn says she too was discouraged when she first discovered her vote in the March special election was thrown out. “When I got that letter, I said, ‘Well, you don’t have to worry about me, because I’m not going to vote no more.'” But that was in the heat of the moment. In the weeks following, she resolved to keep trying to vote, no matter what hurdles are in her way. Thanks to a helpful neighbor, she now has a copy of her ID ready to mail in.

Sitting in the house she inherited from her mother, just blocks from the school where the Little Rock 9 faced down an angry mob in order to claim their court-sanctioned right to equal education, she told ThinkProgress: “It’s not going to stop me from voting, that’s for sure. I know that if you vote, it gives you a little small say, not much, but a little bit. And if enough get together, you can change things.”