Arkansas State Sen. Jimmy Hickey filed a slimmed-down version of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s long-awaited hate crimes legislation on Thursday, a proposed bill which has proved divisive amongst state lawmakers since the governor outlined his hopes for a comprehensive hate crimes legislation ahead of the beginning of the 93rd General Assembly in January.

In his State of the State Address on Jan. 12, the governor described his proposed hate crimes legislation as a “sentence enhancement” for hate crimes and pushed back on criticism from conservative lawmakers who were concerned the bill would only protect certain Arkansans.

“This legislation applies equally,” the governor said. “If you are Hispanic and you are targeted, it applies. If you’re Jewish, it applies. If you’re Caucasian, it applies. [If you’re] African-American or any other race [or ethnicity], it applies equally.”

The governor also encouraged the legislature to lead from the front in regard to hate crimes legislation.

“Let’s not be the last to enact [hate crimes legislation],” the governor said. “Let’s lead and do what is important for so many.”

Arkansas is one of only three states without hate crimes legislation. The others are South Carolina and Wyoming.

The legislation the governor finally got Hickey to file though, Senate Bill (SB) 622, might not be as comprehensive as the governor’s State of the State speech suggested it would be. SB622 doesn’t include a sentence enhancement and only requires an offender who purposely selects a victim due to their membership or association with an “identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political or religious beliefs or characteristics” to serve at least 80 percent of their original prison sentence before being considered for release.

Further, the term “hate crime” appears nowhere in the bill’s language, and SB622 specifically states that an accused’s belief or expression that is hostile or contrary to a victim’s association or membership in a protected group doesn’t necessarily meet the standards for the defendant to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has been urging lawmakers to pass hate crime legislation, said the bill is worded so vaguely that it could even offer protections to Nazis and white supremacists. The group said it would not count Arkansas as having a hate crimes law if the measure is enacted.

Other subsections of SB622 create penalties for false reporting of crimes which would require the defendant to serve 80 percent of their original prison sentence and creates a registry of all crimes committed under the bill’s umbrella.

It is unclear the governor’s thoughts on SB622. The governor’s press office didn’t respond to the Log Cabin’s request for comment as of press time. The Arkansas Chamber of Commerce supported SB622.

The State House of Representatives passed House Bill (HB) 1715 on Thursday by a 74-22 vote. HB1715, sponsored by State Rep. Mark Lowery, builds on Lowery’s previously passed voter identification law which requires Arkansans to submit a copy of their driver’s license along with their absentee ballots.

In HB1715, further work is done to limit and restrict the use and handling of absentee ballots in the state, including amending the number of absentee ballots a person can possess before they’re presumed to be perpetrating voter fraud to four and barring county clerks and other election officials from providing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters. During Wednesday’s committee hearing on the bill, State Deputy Attorney General Douglas House spoke alongside Lowery in favor of HB1715 and claimed the bill was important because of “irregularities” in the balloting process in Pulaski County during the 2020 Election.

“Voters were notified to come to the [Pulaski County Clerk’s Office] to fix their [ballots] and the [corrected ballots] were received by people [other than] the County Clerk who were able to do [what they wanted to] with [the ballots],” House said. “There was no oversight [of the ballots].”

House also claimed that absentee ballots were opened inside the Pulaski County Courthouse during the 2020 Election by people other than the Pulaski County Election Commission.

Ahead of Thursday’s final vote on HB1715 on the House floor, however, Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth released a statement accusing Lowery and House of lying during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

“No outside groups accepted ballots,” Hollingsworth said. “The Clerk and sworn deputies lawfully accepted returned absentee ballots with security provided by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and the Little Rock Police Department.”

Hollingsworth also pushed back on House’s claim that any absentee ballots were opened inside the courthouse.

“No absentee ballots returned by voters were opened by this office,” Hollingsworth said. “[Ballots] were placed in a locked box in the presence of the voter and then processed in the system before being delivered to the Pulaski County Election Commission.”

Despite the concern over the accuracy of Lowery and House’s claims, HB1715 easily passed the house in Thursday’s vote along mostly party lines and now heads to the senate for its consideration.

For more on the Arkansas State Legislature and HB1671, a bill which allows student-athletes at colleges and universities in Arkansas to receive compensation for the commercial use of their likeness, read Log Cabin Sports Editor Andy Robertson’s column on B1.

Staff Writer Kolton Rutherford can be reached at krutherford@thecabin.net.

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