One of the issues being hotly debated by the state Legislature this year is requiring voters to show photo identification to cast their ballot. The proposal has brought out passionate arguments from those for and against, although it is difficult to understand why it’s such a hot-button issue.
The proposed law — Senate Bill 2 — is sponsored by Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest. King has proposed similar bills in previous sessions but has been unable to get them passed. With his party in the majority this year, it appears his chances are improved.
The proposal would add requirements for voters to present photo identification to poll workers, which could include documents such as a driver’s license, photo identification card, a college student’s identification card or even a concealed-carry handgun license. If a voter does not have photo identification document or card, he or she can obtain one from the secretary of state at no cost.
Current Arkansas law instructs poll workers to ask voters for identification. Voters can show either a driver’s license or other documents, such a utility bill, showing that they live at the address on their voter registration.
But here is the quirky part of the current law. If the voter does not have identification, they still get to vote. The only thing that happens is that the poll worker makes a note that the voter did not have any identification. Later the county board of elections can follow up. If the board suspects fraud, it can turn findings over to the prosecuting attorney to investigate. That rarely happens.
The movement to tighten the restrictions is part of a larger movement in states across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states have passed some sort of law requiring voters to show identification. Of those, 16 require the identification to include a photo. In eight, the laws do not allow the vote to be counted unless photo identification is presented. King’s proposal would add Arkansas to that number.
Much of the debate has been along party lines. Last week, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee approved SB 2 with the five Republicans members voting to pass the bill and the three Democratic members voting against it.
During the debate, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union insisted that the restriction would deny some Arkansans the right to vote and said the ACLU would sue to challenge the law. Democratic Sen. David Johnson of Little Rock went as far as to question the sponsors’ motives, asking them to "admit at least part of the motivation for this bill is suppressing votes."
King, the lead sponsor, said the allegation was "absolutely not true." Suppressing voter fraud not suppressing votes is the goal of the bill, he said.
It is a bit of a mystery why both sides are so passionate on this issue. On the one hand, it seems like a relatively simple requirement to ask someone to show identification when voting. I am asked to show ID when I enter a courthouse, pay with a credit card or cash a check, and a whole list of other mundane tasks.
I also do not buy the notion that there is a sizable population without identification or that anyone in that category is unable to make a trip to their county clerk for a free voter identification card.
At the same time, most voter fraud that has plagued Arkansas has been focused on absentee ballots, such as the infamous case of former Rep. Hudson Hallum. Tightening the rules for absentee ballots would seem to be a better way to prevent fraud.
However, the benefits of the photo ID bill seem to outweigh the potential harm opponents have raised. It also seems to be an issue on which cooler heads can prevail.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.