BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – April 21, 2021 — Local voting rights advocates will rally at the State Capitol this weekend to protest several so-called voter suppression bills already approved by the Arkansas legislature that opponents say disenfranchise Black and underserved voters across the state.
Since the 93rd General Assembly began on Jan. 11, Arkansas’ Republican supermajority has overwhelmingly approved and enacted several bills that will revamp the state’s election process, including a controversial measure that has ignited calls for boycotts in Georgia, Florida and other Pro-Trump states.
On Monday, Arkansas lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 486 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, that Arkansas ACLU officials say would ban anyone from providing food and water to voters waiting in line at the polls. Now Act 728 of 2021, the proposal was approved on April 13 by the Arkansas House in a party-line vote of 74-23.
Without a veto from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Hammer’s proposal will make it a criminal misdemeanor offense “to enter or remain in an area within one hundred feet of the primary exterior entrance to a building where voting is taking place except for a person entering or leaving a building where voting is taking place for lawful purposes.”
In the 100-page omnibus bill signed into law by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in late March, Republican lawmakers in that state make it a misdemeanor to hand out food and drinks within 25 feet of voters waiting in line to vote. Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said Act 728 is even worse than the Georgia law because it goes even further to restrict voting access.
“What we’re seeing in Arkansas is the most dangerous assault on the right to vote since the Jim Crow era,” said Dickson. “Legislators are moving at breakneck speed to erect new barriers to the ballot that will disproportionately impact voters of color, as well as elderly and low-income Arkansans. These bills don’t just make it harder to vote; they also make it easier for partisan politicians to interfere with local election administrators – something that could have disastrous consequences for democracy. These bills will make it harder for all voters – of all political stripes – to make their voices heard.”
Dickson also lambasted Senate Bills 643 and 644 by Hammer, twin proposals overwhelmingly approved by the Republican supermajority in the House on Tuesday and now headed to the governor’s desk with just over a week left in the session. SB 643 moves up the due date to return absentee ballots to the Friday before election day and requires them to be delivered in-person, rather than a dropbox. Senate Bill 644 would allow for a state takeover of local election authority 643
Another controversial proposal, formerly House Bill 1715, was earlier signed into law on April 15 by a party-line vote of 27-8. Act 736 of 2021, the new law sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, was quickly approved on the House floor by the Republican supermajority on April Fool’s Day by a vote of 74-22.
During debate on the House floor, Lowery called the seven-page bill part of an “election integrity” package that the Republican supermajority has proposed to “clean-up” and restore voter confidence in Arkansas elections. Among several things, Act 736 would specifically address the absentee voting processes that former President Donald Trump called fraudulent and blamed for his election losses in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Michigan.
In his speech on the House floor, Lowery said Pulaski County elected officials collected more than 10,000 absentee ballots during the 2020 presidential election that did not have proper signatures. However, Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Terri Hollingsworth called Lowery claims “lies that needed “to be addressed and corrected.”
Although the Republican Caucus have easily pushed Pro-Trump, cookie-cutter voter restriction bills through the Arkansas legislature, Hollingsworth and other local voting rights advocates say these same measures are being approved in the Natural State with little attention.
“No matter our race, background or zip code most of us believe that for democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock. “Throughout our history, we have fought to ensure more Americans have our right to vote honored and that every American is able to cast our vote and have it counted. To move forward together, we must ensure that Americans can cast our ballot so we are able to elect leaders who govern in our interests and make the promise o
Lowery and Hammer and other Republican lawmakers have also filed at least a dozen other bills that opponents allege are racist and targeted at Black voters and citizens. Besides revamping Arkansas’ absentee voting process, Lowery’s HB 1715 would also limit so-called “ballot harvesting,” a widespread legal practice to collect mail-in and absentee ballots and submit them to local election officials. Stacey Abrams, a Georgia activist and former gubernatorial candidate in 2018, has also described a similar measure adopted by that state’s legislature as “nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0.”
“From passage of the #SB202 voter suppression bill targeted at Black and brown voters to the arrest of a Black legislator who was advocating for the voting rights of her constituents, today was a reminder of Georgia’s dark past. We must fight for the future of our democracy,” Abrams tweeted on March 25, likened a bill signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to the past system of racial discrimination, ballot barriers, and poll taxes and tests.
Following the 2020 presidential election by President Joe Biden by more than 6 million votes, or twice the Arkansas population, former President Donald Trump and his supporters made false claims that Abrams and others illegally harvested in mostly Black-populated areas of Georgia. In the debate on HB 1715, Lowery has offered no specific examples of fraudulent or illegal activities during the 2020 election in Arkansas, which Trump won by more than 235,000 votes over Biden.
“We took a giant step forward when we amended the voter ID (Act) to clarify that you actually had to present a voter ID rather than a signed statement, that was a major step forward, but there is a lot of the process that we have to clean up,” Lowery said on April 1 on the House floor. “And one of these areas is specific.
On March 3, Lowery’s Act 249 of 2021 was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. It would halt Arkansas voters from casting a provisional ballot with a sworn statement. In the 2020 election, voters only had to present a valid ID or copy of their ID when voting at the poll or by absentee ballot, respectively.
In November 2018, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring voters to show a valid photo ID at the poll. Those forms of ID can include a state-issued driver’s license or photo ID, a concealed handgun carry permit, a U.S. passport, and a photo ID issued by an accredited Arkansas college or university.
Lowery is also the primary sponsor for House Bills 1112 and 1803. Now Act 249 of 2021, the first bill would eliminate signature verification of provisional ballots and require photo identification for a provisional ballot to be counted. It was enacted into law on March 3.
HB 1803, entitled the Arkansas Balloting Integrity Act of 2021, was signed into law on April 19 as Act 756 of 2021 by a vote of 33-1. That measure would amend the complaint process for election law violations in Arkansas and expand the authority of the State Board of Election Commission to investigate alleged violations, render findings and institute correction measures or impose sanctions against the offending party.
Today, nine days before the 93rd General Assembly adjourns on April 30, there are at least eight other bills in the House and Senate that address voter or election reform. However, Lowery admitted during the debate on Act 249 that there is no evidence of fraud in Arkansas elections, although he has promoted and tagged false Pro-Trump statements on election misdeeds on his Facebook page.
Lowery posted a picture to his Facebook page on Jan. 2, four days before the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., urging Arkansas Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman to vote with 12 other Republican US. senators “in response to obvious 2020 Presidential election irregularities.”
“Will Arkansas Senators Cotton and Boozman join them,” wrote Lowery while grinning and posing with a “March for Trump” tour bus in the background. The March for Trump rally was part of a 20-city bus tour leading up to several Pro-Trump events in Washington. D.C. that turned into a deadly riot and coup attempt at the nation’s Capital.
Since the Georgia state legislature enacted new laws like those proposed in Arkansas, several top corporations have spoken out against those voter restrictions proposals and promised to limit support to politicians that support such measures. At the same time, Delta Airlines, JP Morgan Chase, Walmart, Coca Cola and other corporations have refused to sign a pledge initiated by a group of Black CEOs that oppose cookie-cutter voting restructure back by Pro-Trump lawmakers across the U.S.
Other businesses and political action groups, including Major League Baseball and an entertainment partnership led by Hollywood actor Will Smith, have taken further steps to boycott or pull future sporting events, economic development projects, and movie production out of Georgia and other states that enact voting restricted impacting Black and underserved voters. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging multiple provisions of a new Georgia state law signed by Gov. Brian Kemp that places numerous restrictions on voting in that state.
No elected officials, corporate or political groups have signed pledges or called for similar punitive measures in Arkansas. In 2013, the ACLU of Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Law Center successfully filed lawsuits on behalf of four individuals to block a voter identification ID passed by the legislature that year. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down that legislation in 2014.
However, Arkansans in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment authorizing voter ID among the list of requirements to vote in Arkansas. That vote was moot after the Arkansas legislature in 2017 adopted a new voter ID bill, which the Republican-leaning Supreme Court later upheld.
In the current session, only one of more than a dozen voter-related bills sponsored by the Republican supermajority have had difficulty reaching the House or Senate floor for a vote. Hammer’s Senate Bill 485, which would have eliminated early voting on the Monday before Election Day, has failed twice in the Senate State Agencies & Governmental Affairs committee.
ACLU officials have not yet announced if they plan to file lawsuits blocking any of the current GOP-backed voter restrictions in Arkansas.
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