Judge again strikes down voter ID law; stay keeps law in effect


LITTLE ROCK — For the second time in eight days, a Pulaski County circuit judge ruled Friday that an Arkansas law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls is unconstitutional.

Judge Tim Fox also stayed his order, leaving the law in effect. He noted that the state Supreme Court has stayed his April 24 ruling striking down Act 595 pending an appeal.

The judge said he stayed his latest ruling for the sake of consistency because an appeal is “inevitable” and there is no time for the Supreme Court to decide whether to issue a new stay before early voting in the May 20 primary election begins Monday.

“I’m not going to throw thousands of precincts into turmoil,” Fox said.

Fox issued his latest ruling in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Arkansas Law Center on behalf of four Arkansas voters. He agreed with the plaintiffs that Act 595 imposes qualifications to vote in Arkansas that improperly go beyond the qualifications set forth in the Arkansas Constitution.

Fox rejected arguments by lawyers for the state attorney general’s office and the secretary of state’s office that the law does not impose new qualifications to vote. Senior Assistant Attorney General Joseph Cordi Jr. argued that the law is “only a procedural mechanism” to ensure that voters are registered and are who they say they are.

The judge said the state Legislature has the authority to change the qualifications for voter registration, provided it does so with a at least a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers, but that did not happen with Act 595. He also said that demanding something of voters at the polls — government-issued photo identification — that was not required of them when they registered to vote impairs their fundamental right to vote.

Fox said he would have no problem presenting a driver’s license when he votes, because he would have needed it to drive to the polling place, but “everybody doesn’t have a car.”

Last week’s ruling by Fox that Act 595 is unconstitutional came in a lawsuit that challenged a rule adopted by the state Board of Elections Commissioners on how absentee ballots should be treated under Act 595.The Supreme Court did not stay the portion of Fox’s decision that struck down the rule giving absentee voters a “cure period” in which to present identification after an election if they fail to submit a copy of their ID with their ballot.

Supporters of Act 595 have complained that the constitutionality of the law had not been challenged in that lawsuit — a charge that Fox addressed Friday.

“I had to address Act 595 because the state regulation was derivative of that,” he said.

Briefs were due with the Supreme Court by noon Friday in the earlier case. The high court has agreed to give the appeal expedited consideration.

The secretary of state’s office had asked Fox to recuse in the ACLU’s lawsuit, citing the involvement by the ACLU’s lawyer in another lawsuit concerning the qualifications of a would-be challenger to Fox’s re-election bid. Fox declined the request from the bench Friday.

Jeff Priebe, attorney for the plaintiffs, said after Friday’s hearing that even though the law remains in place because of the stay, “we’re very pleased with the court’s decision that held voter ID unconstitutional.”

Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said Friday, “We are glad that Judge Fox issued a stay of his ruling as we intend to pursue an appeal of the ruling on the board’s behalf.”

Secretary of State Mark Martin said in a statement, “I am pleased that the voter ID requirement will remain in place so that it won’t create confusion, as early voting begins this Monday. I look forward to seeing what the final ruling will be, as litigation continues. I would like to remind voters that for now, they will need a picture ID to vote.”

During last year’s legislative session, Act 595 was largely supported by Republicans, who said it would prevent voter fraud, and opposed by Democrats, who said it would disenfranchise poor, disabled and elderly voters who were less likely than other voters to have photo identification.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the law, but the Republican-controlled Legislature overrode the veto.