LITTLE ROCK — The Senate on Tuesday brushed aside a final procedural attempt to sidetrack legislation requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls.
Senators rejected a committee’s advisory opinion that Senate Bill 2 needed a two-thirds vote for approval, then voted 22-12 to concur in a House amendment to the measure and sent it to Gov. Mike Beebe’s desk.
A Beebe spokesman said the governor would reserve judgment on the bill until Attorney General Dustin McDaniel responds to a lawmaker’s request for an opinion as to its constitutionality.
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee, in a straight party-line vote, concluded the photo ID bill did not properly pass the Senate previously.
The committee, one of the few legislative bodies still controlled by Democrats, voted 8-6 to approve a motion that SB 2 would alter the state constitution and, therefore, needed a two-thirds vote for approval. It originally passed the Senate 23-12, one vote shy of a supermajority.
The panel’s non-binding advisory opinion went to the full Senate, which rejected it on a 13-21 vote.
Before the full Senate’s final legislative action on the bill, the sponsor, Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, dismissed the committee’s action as a partisan ploy.
"This is just the Democratic Party listening to the far left," King said. "They’re trying to put up a diversion and it’s just a political stunt."
Supporters of the bill said on the Senate floor it is meant to curb voter fraud. Opponents argued that it was trying to fix a problem that does not exist and could disenfranchise some voters.
"I feel compelled to say it’s wrong," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock.
Elliott, who appeared emotional and close to tears on the Senate floor, said she remembered as a child hearing her grandparents speak in hushed tones about the poll tax in effect in the South during the Jim Crow era to deter blacks from voting. She suggested SB 2 could work the same way.
"I never dreamed that I would have to fight the same kind of thing," Elliott said.
King told reporters later that he appreciated Elliott’s comments, "but the reality is, we looked at other states (and) voter turnout has gone up when they passed this."
"The voter suppression thing, we’ve debated that," he said, adding that all someone without identification would have to do is go to the county clerk’s office and get a voter ID card.
Opponents of the bill have maintained that it required a two-thirds vote because it would would alter Amendment 51 to the state constitution, which sets out requirements for registering to vote in Arkansas. Altering the constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.
Democrats used the argument to try to sidetrack SB 2 in the House, where the bill narrowly passed in a 51-44 vote after the House Rules Committee rejected opponents’ claim that it had not properly passed the Senate.
Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, who fought SB 2 in the House, requested an opinion from McDaniel last week on whether the legislation would violate Article 3 of the Arkansas Constitution by imposing additional qualifications on the right of a citizen to vote.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Tuesday the governor would wait to see what the attorney general has to say before deciding what he will do with the bill.
"He’s waiting to get word from the AG’s office as to whether the bill has concerns with the constitution, not necessarily the same concerns you’ve heard voiced by the Legislature," DeCample said. "This is whether or not you are adding qualifications for voting, which is a matter of the articles of the state constitution. That’s the legal concern he’s got right now."
King told reporters he was surprised Beebe has not made up his mind about the bill since it has been debated repeatedly in the Legislature.
"It’s not that hard a decision to make, as long as this bill has been out and been debated," King said. "I hope he respects the House and Senate chambers that passed this bill."
McDaniel spokesman Aaron Sadler said Tuesday that the attorney general’s office was working on a response but had no time frame for issuing an opinion.
Reporter John Lyon contributed to this report.