Since the beginning of our country there have been movements to expand the right to vote to all citizens, not just a select few. After hundreds of years of work by advocates to ensure our country was living up to our values, we had made major strides. But in the past couple of decades, we have seen voting rights decline, with major actions like the U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and voter ID requirements that have disproportionally impacted Hispanic, Black, Asian American, and multi-racial voters.
But nothing has compared to the devastating wave of laws passed across the country in 2021 to take us backwards, not forwards, with voting rights. And the people who will be most impacted by these restrictive new laws are many of the same people who have always been targeted with anti-democracy measures, the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) in our communities. These laws will also impact elderly voters, voters who have disabilities, and more.
During the 2021 Arkansas General Assembly session, as debunked conspiracy theories around the 2020 election continued to spread, dozens of bills were filed that would change election processes in the state. Some of those bills would have expanded voting rights and made voting easier, but with only a couple of exceptions, those bills failed to pass. Most of the bills that did become law will make it harder to vote and will allow for political interference in election operations.
For many voters, the primary elections this year will be the first time they will see those laws in action.
How we vote
Sample ballots. Starting with one bright spot from the 2021 session, Act 128 requires that sample ballots for each polling site be posted online for voters to review. Many counties already posted sample ballots online that voters could read through before election day, allowing them to research the candidates and measures they would be voting on. But not all counties did. This new law now makes it a requirement. You can view your sample ballot online at Arkansas VoterView.
Early voting. Another positive was the defeat of SB485 by voting rights advocates and local election officials. The bill would have cut early voting short by a day. Currently, early voting ends the Monday before the election. If this bill had passed, early voting would have ended the Saturday before the election.
Now to the harmful new laws.
Voter ID. Act 249 amends the state Constitution to effectively end the right to vote for people who do not own certain forms of ID. Before this law was enacted, voters without qualifying forms of ID could sign a statement swearing to their identity.
A common refrain used by supporters of the bill and those who said the bill was “not that big of a deal,” was that people have to use ID for many everyday activities. But that argument disregards the reality of Arkansans who cannot easily apply for an ID, despite legally qualifying for one as a legal citizen of the state and country. Elderly Arkansans who may not have some necessary documents and people who live in rural parts of the state with no access to transportation to get to county offices may be unable to vote for lack of ID.
The argument that we already must use IDs for many things already also does not consider the real-world impact of voter ID laws, a relatively new phenomenon in our democracy. Last year, I wrote about how there is evidence that these laws disproportionately decrease turnout among Hispanic, Black, Asian American, and multi-racial voters — groups of Americans that have borne the brunt of voter suppression laws since the founding of our country.
Voting absentee. Act 973 moves up the deadline to return absentee ballots in person to the Friday before the election (previously the day before the election), except in the case of an “authorized agent” delivering the ballot of someone who is medically unable to vote at their polling place. It is an interesting change considering the ballots still cannot be counted until election day, and it gives Arkansas the distinction of having the earliest deadline for submitting absentee ballots in the country.
Despite a requirement to submit a photocopy of a voter’s ID with an absentee ballot under Act 249, the legislature also passed a law that creates new signature matching requirements for absentee ballots in Act 736. If a voter’s signature on the absentee ballot application does not match the signature on their voter registration application, they cannot receive an absentee ballot. People’s signature can change as they age or can look different if they have a disability. Some voters have lived in the same homes for decades and have not had to submit a new voter registration form during that time. Ballots rejected because of signature matching disproportionately come from elderly voters, young voters, BIPOC voters, and voters with disabilities.
Voting rights lawsuit. Several Arkansas voters, the League of Women Voters of Arkansas (LWVAR), and Arkansas United have sued the state to stop the implementation of these laws. In announcing the suit, LWVAR President Bonnie Miller said, “The new restrictive bills will not increase the public’s confidence in the state’s election administration or ensure election integrity – they will do the opposite.” The lawsuit will be heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which has stayed a lower court ruling that had been struck down the laws (meaning the laws will remain in effect until the Supreme Court makes its own ruling).
Fraud hotline. If you voted in a special election recently, you probably saw a sign at your polling place informing you that you can call the Attorney General’s office to report any violations to election laws you perceive. Act 974 established this hotline. This law is a solution in search of a problem. Study after study have shown that voter fraud is exceedingly rare, but false claims of widespread fraud continue to be used to restrict voting rights.
See the end of this blog post for hotlines you can call if someone tries to deny you your right to vote.
Another major change voters will see this year is the change to their voting districts.
The census and redistricting. Every decade, after the census, all voting districts across the country, from school boards to the U.S. House of Representatives, are redrawn using new population counts from the census. In Arkansas, the Arkansas General Assembly is tasked with drawing our state’s U.S. House districts. While the Board of Apportionment, made up of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State, draws the Arkansas General Assembly’s House and Senate districts. After the new maps were adopted in 2021, several lawsuits argued that the new maps disenfranchise Black voters by splitting their vote, in a method known as cracking.
Don’t call me Gerry! Gerrymandering is nothing new. The process is named after a Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 adopted a map that was particularly artistic in its efforts to secure a district for his party. Since then, the practice has been used by both Democratic and Republican legislators to choose their voters, by drawing districts in such a way that benefits their party.
Gerrymandering lawsuits. Three lawsuits have been filed over Arkansas’s newly drawn maps. One lawsuit by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenges the state House maps drawn by the Board of Apportionment arguing that they dilute the power of Black voters and deny them equal opportunity to participate in the political process. The suit argues that, with the growth of the Black population in Arkansas, the new House maps should have added 4 new, Black-majority districts. The suit is currently in the appeals process after it was dismissed by a federal district judge.
The other two lawsuits, one in state court and one in federal court, are challenging the congressional map drawn by state legislators that divides Pulaski County into three different districts. Both lawsuits argue that the map illegally restricts the political power of Black Arkansans.
Our voice at the ballot box
One of the rights the people of Arkansas have is to propose, pass, or reject laws and constitutional amendments at the ballot box.
Changes to the signature collection process. Act 951 is one of many efforts in recent years by some legislators and lobbyists to limit the power of the people at the voting booth after voters passed laws they did not like, such as the minimum wage increase. The law makes it harder for citizen-led ballot measure campaigns to hire paid canvassers to collect signatures for ballot measure petitions.
Taking power away from the people. HJR 1005 is another effort by some legislators that goes against the Arkansas motto, “The people rule.” This measure has been proposed by the legislature and will be on the 2022 ballot for voters’ consideration. If it becomes law, it will also make it harder for voters to pass measures. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families opposes this measure.
The diminishing power of local election officials and the rise of political influence in elections
In addition to laws that directly impact how people can vote, states across the country also passed a series of laws to diminish the power of local election officials, opening the door for state officials to overturn election results they do not like in the name of “fraud.” Last year, PEW Charitable Trusts wrote how, in response to the refusal of many election officials around the country to overturn election results or to toss out legally voted ballots, state legislators took matters into their own hands, passing laws to criminalize actions by local election officials and giving more power to state legislators and officials in the operations of county elections.
State takeover. Act 974, which created the voter fraud hotline, also created a disturbing, anti-democracy process for the Arkansas General Assembly’s Joint Performance Review Committee and State Board of Election Commissioners to oversee and take over operation of local elections. Governor Asa Hutchinson did not sign the bill, saying the law “amounts to a takeover of the review of all elections by the Joint Performance Review Committee of the General Assembly.” The bill became law without Gov. Hutchinson’s signature.
Taking voting rights back to the future
Despite all the harmful new laws that voters in our state must endure this year, we can push our state legislature to both reverse bad laws and pass new laws that move our state forward in our approach to voting rights.
Online voter registration. Do you have a printer at home? Stamps? Envelopes? Do you still send snail mail? If you responded “no” to any of these questions, then online voter registration is for you! A bill in 2021 would have created an online voter registration system in Arkansas like 42 other states have. A report released nearly a decade ago by the ACLU analyzed the impact of “modernizing” the voter registration process using California’s and Arizona’s systems as case studies. The report found, “Online registration has reduced the workload and administrative burden of elections workers and smoothed out workflow considerably, and, very importantly in a time of fiscal pressure, these positive benefits can be achieved with considerable public savings.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund found that states with online voter registration have higher rates of voter registration. But they cautioned states should consider adopting measures to make sure their online voter registration program equally benefits all potential voters.
Election holiday. Two bills that were proposed would have made it easier for people to take off work to vote. One bill would have made election day a state holiday, and the other would have required employers to provide two hours of paid leave for employees to vote on election days. Arkansas consistently has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. Making sure all voters have guaranteed time to vote could help increase turnout rates.
Simplify the process. There was also a bipartisan effort last regular session to simplify the absentee voting process, which can be confusing for voters and complicated for election officials. The bill would have made several changes to the absentee voting process, including allowing plain language to be used in the absentee ballot application and extending the deadline to complete the counting of absentee ballots from the closing of the polls on Election Day to the end of business on the Thursday following the election.
Repeal regressive laws. The Arkansas General Assembly could also repeal the damaging laws they passed either through a court order or as a result of a strong advocacy push by voters across the state who are being harmed by these measures and their allies. Our state managed free and fair elections for decades without these restrictive laws in place. Arkansans deserve a strong democracy, and these laws based on lies will hurt our state.
Voting rights hotlines
American Civil Liberties Union Voter Protection Hotline: 877-523-2792
Disability Rights Arkansas: 800-482-1174
Election Protection Coalition Helpline: 866-687-8683
Para Español: Si se encuentra con dificultades al votar y necesita ayuda en Español, por favor contacte a Arkansas Unidos: 479-763-2822