- Associated Press - Thursday, October 2, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Supreme Court justices on Thursday questioned whether the state’s constitution allows for requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot as they heard arguments on whether the voter ID law should be upheld.

The hearing came a little over two weeks before early voting begins for the November election. A Pulaski County judge struck down the 2013 law as unconstitutional in May, but suspended his ruling so the law remains in effect.

An attorney for the secretary of state’s office argued the law is a way to ensure that voters meet the legal requirements to cast a ballot.

“It is simply a verification of registration,” A.J. Kelly told the court. “It is a mechanism to ensure that you meet those four qualifications, but it is not an additional qualification to vote.”

An attorney for two civil liberties groups suing the state said the voter ID law places a burden on a right enshrined in the state’s constitution that other rights such as free speech and religion don’t face. The groups are suing the state on behalf of four voters they say are disenfranchised by the law.

“The law impairs the fundamental right of voting because if you don’t have the ID, you can’t do it,” said Jeff Priebe, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Law Center. “There’s no other fundamental right in Arkansas which requires that you show a picture ID in order to take advantage of that right.”

The Republican-led Legislature overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe last year to approve the voter ID law. Thirty-two states have laws in effect requiring voters to show some form of identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states have strict photo ID requirements similar to Arkansas.

Justices did not indicate when they would rule in the case, and at least one member of the court expressed skepticism about what authority the state has to impose such a law.

“I’m having trouble equating lawfully registered to vote with requiring all these various ID things you’ve got here,” Justice Donald Corbin told attorneys for the secretary of state’s office during the 45-minute hearing.

Justice Paul Danielson appeared to balk at the state’s argument that the law placed a minimal burden on voters.

“Leaving the polls, gathering the documentation, coming back the following Monday after the election with the documentation in rural Arkansas, you’re saying, is de minimis?” Danielson asked Kelly.

It’s possible the court could issue a ruling that doesn’t weigh in the law’s constitutionality, since the state is asking justices to toss out Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s preliminary injunction against the law and order further hearings on the matter.

Danielson, however, questioned whether Fox’s ruling could still be considered a preliminary injunction since he also ruled the law unconstitutional.

“To me, it seems like the preliminary injunction is out the window,” he said.

The court’s ruling could have major implications, since Arkansas’ U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican rival Rep. Tom Cotton could determine which party controls that chamber next year. Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins Oct. 20.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .

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