- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A Pulaski County judge’s decision to strike down Arkansas’ voter ID law complicates planning for a primary that would have been the first statewide test of new voting restrictions, and reopens a debate that Democrats and Republicans both see as having an upside in this fall’s election.

Ruling in a case that had focused on a narrow portion of the law, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox declared the requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls “void and unenforceable” after saying it violates Arkansas’ constitution. His ruling was issued just a week and a half before early voting begins for Arkansas’ May 20 primary.

It’s a case that will ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, he provided fodder for Democrats and Republicans alike to revive their arguments over the voter ID law that was approved last year.

Just how much of a boost both parties hope to see from the ruling was immediately clear. Within an hour of Fox’s decision, state Democrats were fundraising off of his ruling.

“With your help, we can make sure Republicans who voted for this unconstitutional law are defeated in November,” Candace Martin, the state party’s executive director, wrote in an email.

A Republican lawmaker vying for his party’s nomination for a south Arkansas congressional seat also jumped on the news, quickly issuing a statement condemning Fox’s ruling.

“The integrity of the ballot box is the bedrock of our republican system,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, who was the top Republican in the House when it approved the measure last year. Westerman is running against Tommy Moll in the GOP primary for the 4th Congressional District.

The upcoming voter ID fight largely mirrors what the Legislature saw last year, when the Republican-led House and Senate approved the new restriction. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the measure, but was overridden by both chambers with a simple majority vote. At the time, Beebe called the legislation an expensive solution in search of a problem.

Whether or not voters will be required to show ID has major implications in a state with one of the most expensive and heated Senate races in the country, with Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor fending off a challenge form Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton this fall, as well as an open governor’s race and two open seats for Congress.

Fox’s ruling came in a case that had focused on a narrow portion of the law. The Pulaski County Election Commission had sued the state Board of Election Commissioners for adopting a rule that gives absentee voters additional time to show proof of ID. The rule would have allowed voters who did not submit required identification with their absentee ballot to turn in the documents for their vote to be counted by noon Monday following an election. It mirrors an identical “cure period” the law gives to voters who fail to show identification at the polls.

The county panel’s lawsuit claimed the state overstepped its bounds by granting the extra time, something that wasn’t specifically spelled out in the law.

Instead of ruling just on the absentee issue, Fox struck down the entire law. A separate challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas against the law itself is pending before Fox’s court, with a hearing scheduled later this week.

A final ruling from the Supreme Court on the law’s constitutionality may not come until well after the November election. That timeline gives both parties time to use the issue as a way to bring out their base. Democrats say that blocking the voter ID law will help in terms of turning out more voters, something they say will help the party.

“The more people who vote will mean that it’s a good thing for Democrats. That’s because these are voters who believe in the same things we are fighting for in this election cycle,” Martin said, citing expansion of pre-kindergarten and protecting Social Security as examples.

Republicans say they expect Fox’s ruling to help motivate the party, which had pushed for years for a voter ID law in the Legislature.

“They felt this was a proper requirement of a voter to ask for an ID, just like you would if you were cashing a check or buying something at the store,” state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb said. “I think our base will see this as unreasonable and will move them to elect more (Republican) members of the Legislature.”


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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