LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge on Friday again found the state's new voter ID law to be unconstitutional but said there wasn't enough time to prohibit officials from enforcing it during this month's primary election.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot violates the Arkansas Constitution. But Fox stayed his order, saying he did not believe there was time to stop the state from using the law for the May 20 primary because early voting is set to begin Monday.
"I'm not going to throw thousands of precincts into turmoil," Fox told attorneys at the end of an hour-long hearing.
Fox struck down the law in a separate case last week, but the state Supreme Court stayed that ruling while it considers an appeal of the decision.
The law, which took effect Jan. 1, was used in some local elections earlier this year, but it will be used statewide for the first time during this month's primary. Opponents said they were pleased with the ruling, even though the requirement will remain in place for now.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that court ruled it on its face unconstitutional ... I think that is what we should focus on," said Jeff Priebe, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued the state over the law.
The ruling comes as voter ID laws are being challenged throughout the nation. Though 31 states have laws in effect requiring voters to show some form of identification, Arkansas' in one of the strictest in the nation. Seven other states have photo ID requirements in effect similar to Arkansas.
A federal judge in Wisconsin struck down that state's voter ID law on Tuesday, and a Pennsylvania judge this week said he wouldn't reconsider his decision striking down that state's law as well. President Barack Obama last month waded into the voter ID debate, accusing Republicans of using restrictions to keep voters from the polls and jeopardizing 50 years of expanded voting access for millions of black Americans and other minorities.
Republicans backing voter ID laws in Arkansas and elsewhere have said the efforts are aimed at preventing voter fraud and protecting the integrity of the election process.
Attorneys for the state argued that the requirement didn't create a new hurdle for voters.
"It's just a procedural mechanism to ensure that the people who show up to vote meet the constitutional qualifications," Senior Assistant Attorney General Joe Cordi told Fox during the hearing.
Fox, however, disagreed and told attorneys he believed it amounted to an additional qualification for voters.
Under previous law in Arkansas, election workers were required to ask for photo ID but voters don't have to show it to cast a ballot. Under the new law, voters who don't show photo identification can cast provisional ballots. Those ballots would be counted only if voters provide ID to county election officials before noon on the Monday after an election, sign an affidavit stating they are indigent or have a religious objection to being photographed.
"I am pleased that the Voter ID requirement will remain in place so that it won't create confusion, as early voting begins this Monday," Secretary of State Mark Martin said in a statement released by his office. "I look forward to seeing what the final ruling will be, as litigation continues. I would like to remind voters that for now, they will need a picture ID to vote."
Fox had previously struck down the law in a case that had focused on absentee ballots. The Pulaski County Election Commission sued the state Board of Election Commissioners for adopting a rule that gives absentee voters additional time to show proof of ID. The rule allows 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.
Fox's ruling had been stayed by the state Supreme Court, but the high court declined to stay Fox's decision to strike down the state board's rule giving absentee voters additional time. Attorneys for the state and the Pulaski County Election Commission sparred over the law's constitutionality in briefs filed before the high court Monday morning. It was unclear when justices would issue a ruling.
The ACLU and the Arkansas Public Law Center sued on behalf of four voters who they said would be harmed by the restriction.
The Republican-led Legislature approved the law last year, overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.
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