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Arkansas bills that restrict voting access head to governor’s desk

The Republican-controlled Arkansas legislature this week passed a handful of bills that would add restrictions to the voting process in the state, sending them to the governor’s desk.

One of the more controversial bills, dubbed the “no water bottles for voters” bill by opponents, would prohibit people from entering the perimeter of a polling place unless they were voting — making giving food or water to voters in line a crime in some cases. Another measure would ban clerks from sending unsolicited absentee ballots to voters, while one would put in place strict signature match requirements for mail-in ballots.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office told CNN on Wednesday that he is reviewing the measures.

The bills are part of a larger effort by Republican-led legislatures to restrict voting access in the wake of record turnout in the November 2020 election. In the last month, the effort has intensified as state legislatures begin to head into the final months of their respective sessions.

A new tally by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University finds that 361 bills with provisions that restrict voting have been introduced in 47 states as of March 24 — as more state legislatures work to clamp down on ballot access.

Voting rights activists have said the bills put up additional barriers to the ballot, which will have a disproportionate impact on low-income and disabled voters and voters of color.

“What we’re seeing in Arkansas is the most dangerous assault on the right to vote since the Jim Crow era,” said Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “These bills don’t just make it harder to vote, they also make it easier for partisan politicians to interfere with local election administrators — something that could have disastrous consequences for democracy. These bills will make it harder for all voters — of all political stripes — to make their voices heard.”

“We urge Governor Hutchinson to listen to the concerns raised by Arkansans across the political spectrum and veto these anti-voter bills,” Dickson said.

In Arkansas, there are still additional measures that would restrict ballot access currently moving through both chambers, as well as a handful that would improve voting access.

Republican state Sen. Kim Hammer, one of the primary sponsors of the measures, told CNN on Wednesday that the bills are about “protecting the integrity of the vote” and were not based on former President Donald Trump’s loss in November, which sparked baseless claims of voter fraud that led to the January 6 US Capitol insurrection.

“These were taken from real examples that happened here in the state,” said Hammer, who pointed to a contested state race in November in which an incumbent Democratic legislator filed suit arguing that errors in the counting of absentee ballots by local officials led to his loss to a freshman Republican lawmaker. Legal challenges to the loss were eventually dismissed.

Hammer said he is expecting Hutchinson to approve the bills, noting that the legislature had worked with local election officials in drafting the measures.

“I can see no reason why the governor wouldn’t sign them, given the cooperative effort there was in getting these bills forward,” he added.

Bills make changes to absentee and in-person voting process

Senate Bill 486, which opponents have called the “no water bottles for voters” bill, passed out of the Arkansas House Tuesday afternoon on a 74-23 vote. It prohibits any person from being within a 100-foot perimeter of a polling place while voting is taking place, unless they are entering or leaving the building for “lawful purposes,” like voting.

Opponents of the food and water ban say there are similarities to a controversial portion of Georgia’s new voting law, which makes it a crime for anyone to pass out food and water at the polls within that perimeter. Hammer, the Arkansas bill’s sponsor, has said it is about preventing electioneering, which is already prohibited within that 100-foot perimeter.

Additionally, the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday passed House Bill 1715 along party lines. The bill would prohibit clerks from sending unsolicited absentee ballots to voters. It also would require clerks to provide county election commissioners with a daily count of the absentee applications received.

HB1715 would require a voter’s signatures on an absentee ballot and application to match their signature from their original registration application. The bill states if a voter’s signature on the ballot application is not deemed a match to their registration application signature, then “the county clerk shall not provide an absentee ballot to the voter”. Critics note that signatures often change over time, due to age, injury and other factors — and that requiring an exact match to an original signature could lead to ballots being tossed or voters not being able to even receive an absentee ballot.

The House also passed on Tuesday Senate Bill 487, 87-2. The measure would remove county clerks’ authority to designate voting centers and instead give that power to county election commissioners.

This story has been updated to include more details about HB1715 and responses from Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office and from Sen. Kim Hammer.

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