Posted 3/19/2013 04:55 pm
Updated 1 year ago
LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that would require voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot, sending the Republican-backed measure to Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's desk.
The Senate voted 22-12 to approve the bill after rejecting a nonbinding committee recommendation that the measure require a two-thirds majority, 24 votes. The Republican-led chamber had approved an earlier version of the bill, but had to sign off an amendment attached by the GOP-controlled House to exempt active duty military personnel who file absentee ballots.
The bill also exempts voters who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Under the bill, other voters who don't show photo identification would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot. That ballot would be counted only if they provide ID to county election officials or sign an affidavit stating they are indigent or have a religious objection to being photographed by noon Monday following the election.
Beebe has questioned the need for such a law since poll workers are already required to ask for ID, but stopped short of saying whether he'll veto the bill. While Arkansas poll workers must ask for identification under current law, voters don't have to show it to cast a ballot. If they refuse, they receive provisional ballots election workers must later verify. The bill will put the burden of proving identity on voters, not election workers.
It requires Arkansas to provide free photo IDs to voters who don't have one, costing the state an estimated $300,000. The requirement won't be enforced until funding is available for the IDs or January 1, 2014, whichever occurs last.
Sen. Bryan King said he believed the Senate Rules, Resolutions and Memorials Committee's 8-6 vote to require a two-thirds majority on the bill was a political ploy aimed at stalling the bill. The panel made the recommendation based on arguments that the legislation amends constitutional requirements on voter registration.
King, R-Green Forest, said he hoped Beebe would sign the measure into law.
"Every vote should count and it should matter and we should have safeguards against fraud," he told reporters after the vote.
Opponents compared the restriction to poll taxes that were used to disenfranchise black voters during the Jim Crow era.
Sen. Joyce Elliott said hearing her grandparents talk about poll taxes motivated her to get involved in politics. Elliott, who is black, said she feared voter ID would similarly suppress black voters.
"They worked hard. They sacrificed to not have those types of impediments," Elliott, D-Little Rock, told lawmakers before the vote.
Republicans around the country have been pushing for similar laws in other states, though the measures have faced court challenges. Voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have been blocked.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said the group is "looking into all options" if the bill becomes law and urged Beebe to veto it. Opponents of the measure say it would disenfranchise senior citizens, minorities and the poor.
"Nothing is more fundamental in our democracy than the right to vote, and that right is under attack in Arkansas," said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas' executive director.
An opponent of the bill said the wrangling over the two-thirds vote was partly intended to help with that potential court challenge. The objections focused on claims the legislation changes a state constitutional amendment regarding voter registration. That amendment says lawmakers can only change the registration process with a two-thirds majority vote.
"At least the court will be on notice that this was something that was very contentious and the court needs to decide," said Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.
Supporters of King's bill, however, said the voter ID requirement wouldn't change the registration process so the higher vote threshold shouldn't apply.
Beebe's office said the governor is waiting on an opinion from the attorney general's office on whether the measure would violate the state constitution before saying what he'll do with the bill. Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Tuesday that the governor's concerns about bill's constitutionality focus on whether it imposes additional qualifications for voters, not on questions over the way the bill was approved.
"Substantively, I'm not sure how much of a huge change it is one way or the other. It's a little change," Beebe told reporters Monday. "The real question for me is does it change qualification for voting pursuant to the constitution? That's what we've got to get an answer to."
If Beebe vetoes the voter ID bill, lawmakers can override him with a simple majority in the House and Senate. The Republican-led Legislature has already overridden Beebe's vetoes of two abortion restrictions, including one that would ban the procedure 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
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