Arkansas Supreme Court becomes latest to strike down voter ID law

The seven-member court delivered an unusual decision Wednesday that was at once unanimous and split 4 to 3.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
A voter walks past a "Please Have Photo ID Ready" sign as he enters an early-voting polling place in downtown Little Rock, Ark., May, 5. In a unanimous ruling, the Arkansas Supreme Court Wednesday, found that the state's voter identification law is unconstitutional.

In a continuing flurry of pre-election litigation over voter regulations, the Supreme Court of Arkansas has become the latest court to weigh in on the validity of state-imposed voter ID laws.

The seven-member court ruled 4 to 3 on Wednesday that the 2013 voter ID law violated the Arkansas constitution by imposing a new qualification to vote that would make it more difficult for some registered voters in the state to cast a ballot.

Three of the seven justices concurred in striking down the voter ID law, but disagreed as to why the measure should be invalidated. They found the measure invalid because state lawmakers had failed to follow the procedures to amend the state constitution before imposing the ID requirement on voters. Such an amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote.

The action comes as the US Supreme Court weighs whether to allow enforcement of a voter ID law in Texas in fast-approaching mid-term elections. The high court has moved in recent weeks to block enforcement of an ID law in Wisconsin, but it has also stayed actions by lower courts that undercut new voting requirements in Ohio and North Carolina.

With the invalidation of the Arkansas measure, 21 states currently have photo ID laws for voters. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 of those laws are new this year.

In the Arkansas case, the majority justices said the state’s constitution imposes four requirements to vote in the state. The voter must be a US citizen, a resident of Arkansas, at least 18 years old, and lawfully registered to vote.

The justices said there is no mention of proof of identity in the state’s constitution, and that lawmakers were wrong to impose such a requirement on prospective voters.

“We adhere to the framers’ intent conferred in article 3, section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution to require the foregoing four qualifications of voters in an Arkansas election and nothing more,” Justice Donald Corbin wrote in the majority opinion.

“To hold otherwise would disenfranchise Arkansas voters and would negate the object sought to be accomplished by the framers of the Arkansas Constitution,” he said.

The ruling upheld an earlier decision by a Pulaski County circuit judge striking down the voter ID law, known as Act 595.

The law was passed in March 2013. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, denounced the measure as unconstitutional and vetoed it. The legislature overrode the veto with votes in late March and April 2013.

The law says in part: “any person desiring to vote in this state shall... present proof of identity to the election official when appearing to vote in person either early or at the polls on election day.”

The measure identified acceptable ID as a state-issued voter identification card or any identifying document issued by the US government, state of Arkansas, or an accredited postsecondary educational institution that shows the person’s name, photo, and includes an expiration date.

The law allows prospective voters to use an ID that expired up to four years ago.

Six months ago, four registered Arkansas voters filed a complaint in state court arguing that the measure imposed an additional requirement to vote and made it harder for some voters to exercise their state constitutional right to vote.

State officials said the ID law did not impose a new qualification to vote, but was merely a means to identify eligible voters at the polls.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state constitution includes broad protections of the right to vote. They said proof of identity may be required for voter registration but it cannot be required to cast a ballot.

State officials also argued that voter ID regulations have been upheld as an acceptable election regulation in other states, including Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The Arkansas high court rejected the argument, noting that those cases were based on a reading of the US Constitution or a different state constitution. “Here, we address the present issue solely under the Arkansas Constitution,” Justice Corbin said.

The case is Martin v. Kohls (CV14-462).

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