LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Supreme Court's decision to allow the state to enforce its voter ID law in this month's primary while justices consider whether the measure is unconstitutional sets up a test over Republican lawmakers' efforts to reinstate a law struck down four years ago. More importantly, it will show how much the state's highest court has changed since 2014.
Justices last week put a hold on Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray's decision to block the law's enforcement, meaning voters will have to show photo identification before they cast a ballot in the May 22 primary. Early voting for the primary begins Monday. Republican advocates of the law said the Supreme Court's decision to put the law on hold will avoid creating confusion.
"The stay issued this afternoon provides needed clarity for Arkansas voters and election officials," Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement shortly after the high court's ruling.
The 6-1 order from the court — only Chief Justice Dan Kemp would have denied the request to halt Gray's ruling — didn't elaborate on the reason for the stay. Both sides are set to begin filing briefs in the appeal of Gray's ruling in June, likely ensuring the legal fight will last throughout the summer.
"We are disappointed for the voters in Arkansas that the Arkansas Secretary of State and the Attorney General continue to want to enforce an unconstitutional Voter ID law," Jeff Priebe, an attorney for the Little Rock voter who challenged the measure, said after the ruling.
The decision creates a scenario similar to 2014, when a Pulaski County judge struck down Arkansas' previous voter ID law but put the ruling on hold and allowed it to be enforced in the primary that year.
The state Supreme Court ultimately came down against the 2013 voter ID law, striking it down weeks before the general election in 2014. Opponents of the law were able to point to nearly 1,000 votes in the primary that year that weren't counted because of the photo ID requirement.
The latest law is aimed at addressing a secondary reason some justices raised while striking down the previous voter ID law. The court unanimously struck down Arkansas' law, with four of the court's seven justices saying it violated the state's constitution by adding a qualification to vote. But three of the justices cited a different reason, saying the law didn't garner the two-thirds vote needed in both chambers of the Legislature to change voter registration requirements.
Republicans passed the revived voter ID law hoping that a dramatic change in the court's makeup will work in their favor. Four seats on the seven-member panel have changed hands since the 2014 election. This year's voter ID requirement easily cleared the two-thirds threshold, and the three justices who cited that as a reason for striking the previous law remain on the court.
One of those three justices — Courtney Goodson — is in the middle of another rough judicial campaign as she tries to fend off two challengers and a six-figure television ad blitz from groups that worked to sink her bid for chief justice two years ago.
It's a case that could again overshadow her race, depending on the outcome of this month's election. If none of the three court hopefuls win a majority of the vote, the top two head to a runoff in the November election.