LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The Arkansas Supreme Court tossed out a judge’s ruling striking down the state’s voter ID law on Wednesday, but stopped short of ruling on the constitutionality of the measure.
In a 5-2 ruling, justices vacated a Pulaski County judge’s decision that the law violates Arkansas’ constitution. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox had struck down the law in a case that had focused on how absentee ballots are handled under the law, but justices stayed his ruling while they considered an appeal.
Fox also has ruled the law unconstitutional in a separate case but said he wouldn’t block its enforcement during this month’s primary. That ruling is being appealed to the high court.
Justices said Fox didn’t have the authority to strike down the law in the case focusing on absentee ballots. They noted that there was no request before Fox in the case to strike down the law.
"The question then becomes whether the constitutionality of the act was properly before the circuit court for a ruling. Based on the record before us, we must conclude that the answer to that question is no," Justice Paul Danielson wrote.
The court, however, upheld part of Fox’s decision that a state panel didn’t have the authority to give absentee voters additional time to show ID if they didn’t include a copy of their identification with their ballot.
Arkansas is amid early voting ahead of next Tuesday’s primary.
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.
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. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which sued the state on behalf of four voters in the other voter ID case before Fox, said it was confident the law would eventually be found unconstitutional.
"This law needs to be struck down and not standing between our voters and the ballot box," said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas’ legal director.
Under previous law in Arkansas, election workers were required to ask for photo ID but voters didn’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 are 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.
Arkansas’ law took effect Jan. 1 and had been used in some local elections this year. This month’s primary is the first statewide test of the new law.
The case had initially focused on rules for absentee ballots under the voter ID law. 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.
Justices ruled Wednesday that the state panel did not have the authority to grant the additional time to absentee voters, since it wasn’t specifically addressed in the law.
Chris Burks, a member of the Pulaski County Election Commission, said he believed the ruling highlighted a problem that should have been addressed when lawmakers approved the new requirement last year.
"It drives home the point that it’s important to get it right when you draft the law the first time," Burks said.
State GOP Chairman Doyle Webb, who had defended the cure period granted by the state board, said he’d seek a "legislative remedy" for the absentee voters following the court’s ruling.