ThinkProgress

Arkansas sued over new voter ID law passed despite zero evidence of voter fraud

Voters stand in line to await voting at the McGee Community Center on March 1, 2016 in Conway, Arkansas. CREDIT: AFP/Michael B. Thomas

In 2014, 90-year-old Doris Pendleton and 93-year-old Susie Thomas received notices in the mail that their ballots would not count. The state had recently enacted a voter ID law that required absentee voters like them to include a copy of their photo ID when they mailed in their ballot. The elderly black sisters had voted since the 1940s and remembered paying poll taxes to cast a ballot, but neither was aware of the law or had a copy of their birth certificate easily accessible.

“This happened in a lot of counties that year where you have concentrated numbers of older black voters,” Pendleton’s son, Marion Humphrey, told ThinkProgress. “I know first-hand how annoyed and offended and just bewildered by mother and my aunt were. They were afraid their votes wouldn’t count in the future.”

In October of that year, Arkansas’ highest court struck down the state’s voter ID law. In a unanimous ruling, the court found that the law violated the state constitution by depriving eligible citizens of their right to vote.

But, undeterred, Arkansas’ GOP-controlled legislature tried again.

Last year, the state passed a new version of its voter ID law that is almost exactly the same as the previous version. The only difference between the new bill and the 2013 version, which the courts invalidated, is the language used to describe voter ID: The current version requires “verification of registration” while the last bill used the term “proof of identity.” The acceptable forms of ID are the same.

In a lawsuit filed in state court Wednesday, a plaintiff who challenged the first law claims that this effort is also unconstitutional and seeks an emergency injunction to block it before the upcoming primary.

“It’s the same photo ID. They just call it a different name,” attorney Jeff Priebe, who is representing the plaintiff, told ThinkProgress. “It’s the same thing.”

For Priebe, the current litigation feels like a repeat of what he worked on in 2014. That year, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling finding that it is unconstitutional for the state to pass a law restricting citizens’ right to vote.

“The questions that we are presenting to the court are the same ones that we addressed in the voter ID lawsuit a few years ago,” he said. “We feel very good that the Supreme Court has made their decision on these issues, and we look forward to being back in front of them.”

The state’s new voter ID law, which took effect last summer, will be used statewide for the first time during the upcoming May 22 primary. In 2014, the old law was not overturned until after the state’s primary, and Priebe said there is evidence that the law prevented eligible voters from casting ballots.

“After the primary election, we found evidence that at least 1,000 voters in the state of Arkansas were disenfranchised, both absentee and in-person, because of voter ID,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent this time around.”

Priebe noted that elderly, homeless, and low-income voters were more likely to be affected by the law, which he said attempts to solve a nonexistent problem. Studies on voter participation on the national level have shown repeatedly that contrary to the common Republican Party claim, voter fraud is exceedingly rare and when states enact voter ID laws to prevent it, they end up disenfranchising groups of voters that tend to vote for Democratic candidates.

“In our last litigation, we asked the secretary of state to show us examples and tell us the number of times there has been voter fraud in the state of Arkansas,” Priebe said. “They’ve never been able to show one instance. What we have been able to show is that over 1,000 people were disenfranchised because of this.”

If the 2017 version is not overturned before the primary, voters who lack an acceptable ID will be forced to cast a provisional ballot, which is not counted unless the person can show an ID to elections officials in the next few days.

Pulaski County resident Barry Haas, a 70-year-old former poll worker who is the named plaintiff in the current lawsuit, has said that the law will deprive roughly 240,000 Arkansas residents of their right to vote, although Priebe said he does not know of available data on the total number of Arkansans that lack ID. Haas, who also sued over the previous version of the law, is a conscientious objector who has a photo ID but has refused to show it in order to vote.

“I’m a veteran. I was in the Air Force for four years on a nuclear missile launch crew. I take my civic responsibility seriously,” Haas told ThinkProgress, explaining that voter ID is not a requirement under the state constitution. “Sometimes you have to stand up for your rights and this is one of those instances.”

“The people who are targeted by voter ID laws are people of color, college students, the elderly,” added Haas, who is white. “Some people who are disenfranchised by voter ID laws do not have the means to stand up and protect their rights, and sometimes people have to stand up to help protect the rights of others.”

Priebe said he is also concerned that the state has made no effort to educate voters about the law ahead of the May primary. In other states, poor and misleading educational campaigns about voter ID laws have caused confusion among voters about whether they are eligible to cast a ballot.

A spokesperson for Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin (R) declined to comment on pending litigation.

The 2013 law overcame a veto by then-Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe before the courts struck it down. Beebe said at the time that he believed the bill “unnecessarily restricts and impairs our citizens’ right to vote.” He also claimed that the law would disproportionately hurt the poor, elderly, and minority voters, and he called it “an expensive solution in search of a problem.”

But Republican Asa Hutchison signed the replacement bill into law after he became governor in 2015. “This law is different — in a number of ways — than the previous law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court,” Hutchison said at the time. “It should hold up under any court review.”

Humphrey disagrees. He said the new law has the same intention as the previous version: To suppress black voters. But he is doing everything he can to make sure that his mother, who is 94, is not disenfranchised.

“She will do whatever it takes because she wants to vote,” he said.