LITTLE ROCK — Legislation requiring photo identification to cast ballots in the state was endorsed by a Senate committee Thursday.
The recommendation of Senate Bill 2 occurred after spirited debate in which one committee member suggested that the sponsor filed the measure in an effort to suppress voter turnout.
SB 2 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, now goes to the Senate for consideration.
An attorney for the Arkansas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gould police chief spoke against the measure. The chairman of the Jefferson County Election Commission spoke for the bill, as did former state Rep. Dan Greenberg, who assisted King in presenting the bill.
Under the bill, which was amended by the Senate, a voter would only be allowed to cast a ballot if he or she had a driver’s license, state identification card, concealed-carry handgun license, military identification, United States passport, employee badge or identification document, public assistance identification card or college student identification card.
People who do not have any of those forms of identification would be able to get a photo ID card for free at their county clerk’s office under the amended bill.
King estimated it would cost about $300,000 to purchase the necessary photo machines and provide them to all the county clerk’s offices in the state.
Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, suggested the cost might be higher. He asked who would pay for the photo machines.
King said the machines would be purchased by the secretary of state’s office. The ID requirement would not take effect until the money is appropriated and the photo machines are purchased, he said.
The secretary of state’s budget for next fiscal year has already been filed and it does not have a line item for the photo machines, Thompson said.
Holly Dickson, attorney for the Arkansas Chapter of the ACLU, said a voter ID law would disenfranchise certain segments of society.
“This just adds an additional layer that is certain to take away the right to vote,” she said.
Gary Hawes, a longtime poll worker and chief judge at a voting precinct in western Pulaski County, called the measure a “bad bill … a controversial bill” that would “prevent zero cases of voter impersonation.”
Gould Police Chief William El-Amin, said many elderly voters do not have the means to travel 30 miles or more to the nearest county clerk’s office to get a voter identification card.
“By doing this you would definitely be disenfranchising the African-American community in south Arkansas,” he said.
Stu Soffer, the Republican chairman of the Jefferson County Election Commission, spoke for the bill, saying it would make voting smoother and more efficient.
“This is not perfect, but it is a start, a necessary start,” Soffer said.
Greenberg said it would prevent voter identification fraud and that a number of other states have already passed similar laws.
“I really think very few people believe that (a voter identification card) is any kind of imposition,” Greenberg said, adding that people are required to show identification when they enter a courthouse and check out a library book.
“Everybody knows this is not really an unreasonable or unconstitutional burden … to present ID,” he said.
During the discussion, Johnson suggested that King and Greenberg supported the measure because it would make it more difficult for some people to vote.
“Absolutely not true,” said Greenberg. “That’s really unfair and I think you are better than that.”
Later in the meeting, Johnson apologized, saying he sometimes gets overly excited and says things before thinking.
King said after the meeting he did not appreciate Johnson’s accusation.
“The most discouraging comment was not the reason that people felt differently about it, or passionately. Hey, I understand that, but the problem was accusing (us) of voter suppression,” King said. “You know, every time someone makes a personal accusation I feel like we’re right on the facts because they can’t attack me any other way, so I was a little disappointed on that point and that comment.”