Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.
That’s a slight adaptation from Oliver Hardy’s signature comment to his sidekick, Stan Laurel, often delivered during the misadventures of Laurel and Hardy.
The phrase applies to the mess created by the Arkansas Legislature in passing Act 595 of 2013, which established a new requirement that each voter produce photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot. The law’s constitutionality has been highly suspect since its conception, and here we are with early voting under way at the same time as a court test.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on April 24 ruled that Act 595 establishes voter qualifications excessive to what the Arkansas Constitution allows and further that the Legislature approved it illegally. The decision is being appealed to the state Supreme Court, which could rule before the May 20 party primaries and judicial election.
Meanwhile, last week Fox stayed his decision, explaining that the state’s 75 county election commissions wouldn’t have time to make any changes before early voting was to begin Monday. That means, in effect, state and local officials can go ahead with implementing an unconstitutional law.
What, you might ask, is wrong with requiring a voter to produce a photo ID. We all have a driver’s license, right? No, everyone doesn’t have a driver’s license or other photo ID. But that’s beside the point.
The main issue is whether our Constitution allows the Legislature to establish such a requirement at the polling place. Poll workers already could ask for proof of ID but could not disqualify a voter who had none or refused to produce it.
Article 3, as amended, sets four qualifications for voters — age, residency, citizenship and registration. The Legislature can make changes in the registration process, but Judge Fox found that an additional requirement at the time of voting is illegal.
Further, the judge ruled that the Legislature failed to follow Amendment 51 and a subsequent state Supreme Court precedent that changes in the registration process require a two-thirds majority in both houses.
The law passed on party-line votes in the Senate (22-12) and the House of Representatives (51-44), both short of two-thirds. Then Gov. Mike Beebe, warning that the proposal was unconstitutional, vetoed it. But the Republican majority overrode his veto — 21-12 in the Senate and 52-45 in the House, again short of two-thirds.
Implementation of the law created a mess from its beginning, just in time for the Jan. 14 special election for the vacant state Senate District 21 seat in Jonesboro. While the outcome of the election was not affected, several dozen voters were disenfranchised because they failed to include a copy of their photo ID when they cast absentee ballots.
In trying to fix the dilemma after the fact, the Craighead County Election Commission got conflicting advice from the secretary of state, who said those voters should be given another chance to prove their identity, and the attorney general, who said the law provides no such remedy.
The commission published an advertisement calling on the 83 disenfranchised voters to come forward by the following Tuesday. Few responded to the ads, meaning their votes didn’t count.
That’s going to happen on a much larger scale between now and May 20, unless the Supreme Court rules quickly. Poll workers in all 75 counties will require voters to prove their identity with a valid photo card. Any voter who can’t do so may cast a provisional ballot, but it won’t be counted unless he or she proves his identification at the county clerk’s office before counting is done.
Republicans don’t like regulations unless they think they can benefit from them politically. In this case they have added eight typewritten pages of regulations to the simple task of voting.
The question is not whether requiring voter ID at the polls is a good idea but whether our state’s Constitution allows such a restriction upon a person’s right to vote. Poll workers already have the means to detect fraudulent voting. They have lists of registered voters at every polling place, and each voter is required to sign his/her name.
If you don’t see any elephants, the elephant repellent must be working.
• • •
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.