Voting in Arkansas was made considerably more difficult by a slew of new laws last year that create stricter voter ID requirements, signature matching, a special voter fraud hotline (despite no evidence of fraud), earlier absentee voting deadlines and much more.
“It was just a torrential downpour of legislation that came in 2021,” said Rebecca Zimmermann, community engagement director of Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families. “And it was really hard for us advocates on the ground to keep up with all the pieces of legislation. It was becoming an issue of triaging.”
Strict voter ID laws
The new Arkansas voting law that’s gotten the most attention is the photo ID requirement that eliminated the option for voters without IDs to cast provisional ballots if they submit an affidavit attesting to their identity. Now voters without a photo ID will be turned away from the polls.
“The concern isn’t just about the photo ID, which has been in place for a while. They removed the affidavit you could file,” said Kristin Higgins, a program associate at the Arkansas Public Policy Center. “If you didn’t have the right ID, you used to be able to sign this legal document – which could give you a misdemeanor or send you to jail if you’re in violation – saying you are who you are.”
Those in favor of the tighter voter ID laws argued that IDs are already used in everyday life.
“The argument that we already must use IDs for many things already also does not consider the real-world impact of voter ID laws, a relatively new phenomenon in our democracy,” Zimmermann wrote. “There is evidence that these laws disproportionately decrease turnout among Hispanic, Black, Asian American, and multi-racial voters — groups of Americans that have borne the brunt of voter suppression laws since the founding of our country.”
Voting rights advocates, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, argued that because of the expense involved, such requirements could also be considered a form of “poll tax,” a Jim Crow disenfranchisement tactic that was outlawed in 1964 by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Absentee voting limits
Arkansas voters who are allowed to cast absentee ballots, now must turn them in the Friday before the election, three days earlier than the previous deadline of the day before election day.
Only those unable to visit their polling sites on Election Day (due to limitations such as illness or disability) can vote absentee, though Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed voters to temporarily use the pandemic as an excuse to cast their votes by mail in the 2020 presidential election.
Legislation passed in April 2021 requires absentee ballots to be returned the Friday before Election Day. The previous deadline was the day before the election.
That’s the earliest such deadline in the country, according to Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families.
And a new signature matching law could block some from participating. If a county clerk determines the signature on your absentee ballot application doesn’t match the one on your voter registration, you won’t be sent a ballot, THV11 reported.
Elderly voters and voters with disabilities are more likely to vote absentee, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACLU argues. And it’s far more likely these voters’ signatures look different than when they first registered to vote.
Along with signature matching requirements, absentee voters have to submit a copy of their IDs with their ballots, which Higgins says may cause hardships for people without access to a printer or photocopier.
Arkansas’ long-standing refusal to let people register to vote online is another barrier to access for some.
Action over false claims of fraud
Arkansas is one of several states with Republican-controlled governments that have enacted laws to diminish state and local officials’ power over election administration in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud and attempt to get state and federal lawmakers to throw out the results of the 2020 election. One new Arkansas law allows the state legislature to investigate county election officials for suspected election fraud with potential penalties that could lead to the official’s decertification and a $1,000 fine.
“This falls in the post-2020 camp, offering a remedy where most election experts don’t see a problem,” said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll and a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. “The assertion is that somebody’s manipulating the ballots, or the counts, for political gain – that’s the assumption underlined by legislation – but the remedy is more overtly political than the way things are run. It claims to be challenging politics in elections, but it’s injecting politics into elections.”
It also created a toll-free hotline to the state Attorney General’s office for reports of election law violations, noting that a state law already on the books makes knowingly filing a false claim is a Class A misdemeanor.
Throwing out citizen initiatives
Republicans have cemented their control over the Arkansas legislature by drawing gerrymandered districts that limit the voting power for communities of color and other constituencies that more often support Democrats.
Arkansas has a citizen-initiated referendum process that allows organizers to take their case directly to voters statewide. But the legislature has found ways to subvert that process.
Act 951, passed in April 2021, requires canvassers to be Arkansas residents, conjuring a specter of “outside agitators” that has frequently been used by states over the course of U.S. history to discredit voting rights advocates and other civil rights movements. The paid canvasser’s sponsor must do a background check within 30 days before signature collection to prove residency and check for criminal records.
“Ballot issue campaigns rely on people moving from state to state. This impacts campaigns to be able to get something on the ballot,” Higgins said. “Legislators say they don’t think out of state state interests should be able to sway Arkansians, but out of state interests are often supporting what Arkansians are trying to do in the state.”
“This is a dark day for our democracy, and yet another example of how extreme partisanship interferes with our inherent right as citizens to initiate change,” wrote Stephanie Matthews, campaign manager for Open Primaries Arkansas. “More than 150,000 voters – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – signed the petition supporting Issue 5 from Open Primaries Arkansas to take the power away from the extreme wings of both parties and to give voters more choices in November.”
Barriers for voters with disabilities
Advocates worry that two other measures will make it harder for disabled voters to cast ballots.
Voters with disabilities often rely on others to return their ballots, but Act 736, passed in March 2021, limits the number of absentee ballots a person is able to return on someone else’s behalf, from 10 to four.
Another law, Act 728 passed in April 2021, requires people to stay over 100 feet away from the primary entrance of a voting location. This new law makes it harder for voters with disabilities to wait in potentially long Election Day lines, as groups that provide water, snacks and other aid can no longer do this, according to Disability Rights Arkansas.
Turnout among Arkansas voters with disabilities already decreased between the 2016 and 2020 elections, according to a Rutgers study.
Gerrymandering splits Black population
Arkansas’ new congressional district map was adopted in 2021, but many lawsuits said it disenfranchises Black voters by splitting their vote – a tactic known as “cracking.”
The aim was to dilute the Black vote in Pulaski County, which has trended overwhelmingly against Republican congressional candidates, the Arkansas Times reported.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Rebecca Zimmermann, community engagement director of Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families.
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