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Trial date set for challenge to a state law limiting assistance to voters

by Doug Thompson | February 10, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Voters wait in line Thursday to cast ballots at the Benton County Annex in Rogers.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Whether the state can limit the number of times one person helps others vote goes to trial Nov. 15, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Arkansas United, a Springdale-based immigrant rights group, filed the suit on behalf of voters who aren't proficient in English. A 2009 state law forbids any one person who isn't an election official from helping more than six people vote at the polls in each election.

The lawsuit argues the limit violates federal law. The federal Voter Rights Act allows eligible voters who need assistance to get it from the person of their choice.

The lawsuit names Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston and state election officials as well as local election officials in Benton, Washington and Sebastian counties.

Arkansas United is likely to prevail, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks said in a November court order allowing the suit to proceed.

Another court order Friday denied multiple arguments to dismiss the case. That order also asserted Arkansas United's likely success in the matter.

A record number of people who aren't fluent in English voted in the general election ending Nov. 3, the Nov. 2 lawsuit by Arkansas United said. This includes people who speak English well, but aren't proficient in reading it, and therefore couldn't understand written voting instructions.

These voters needed help, but multilingual election officials were in short supply, the lawsuit claims. The limit of six people, in some cases, meant even a family member couldn't render assistance to all close relatives who needed it, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asked for an immediate injunction to lift the limit. Brooks decided an immediate injunction that would only take effect on election day was too disruptive.

Benton, Sebastian and Washington counties were the ones named in the lawsuit because those are counties in which Arkansas United is active in helping non-English speakers vote and where the group claimed the limit was discriminatory.

The facts of the case aren't in serious dispute, so trial preparation should be quick, Brooks said during the hearing. However, the original deadline of four and a half months for the lawyers to exchange briefs and documents seemed too short, he suggested. Attorneys for the defendants agreed and asked for six months to prepare.

The defense argued the proper venue for this case was the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, not U.S. District Court. Brooks' order Friday rejected that argument. Brooks asked if the defendants were going to appeal his ruling to the 8th Circuit. Defendants have no plans to appeal directly at this time, the judge was told.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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