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Arkansas Republicans Criticize Congressional Election Reform Bill

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks at Tuesday's press conference against the federal election bill that passed in the House earlier this month and is now before the Senate. Also with him at the press conference are Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, Sen. John Boozman
Michael Hibblen

As the U.S. Senate considers a major overhaul of federal election law, five Arkansas Republicans spoke against it Tuesday in Little Rock. The legislation was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 3, with all Republicans voting no.

But passage in the Senate looks less likely because of a 50-50 split between parties and some Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, expressing opposition. Arkansas’ two senators said at the press conference they don’t expect it will pass.

The sweeping legislation known as the For the People Act aims to standardize voting laws, which vary greatly from state to state. It includes creation of a mandatory voter registration system and would regulate "dark money" by requiring political organizations to disclose large donors.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called it a major overreach.

"We shouldn’t federalize our elections. We have state legislators and our secretary of state and our attorney general and other state officials to pass our laws here in Arkansas. We have county officials who administer our elections," Cotton said. "This is a bill that is in search of a problem to solve, and what it really wants to solve is that it’s state and local officials who run our elections as opposed to Democrats in Washington."

Democrats argue the change is needed to combat widespread Republican efforts to restrict voting on the state level. So far this year, more than 200 bills have been filed in legislatures across the country that include policies such as reducing access to early voting or voting by mail. It follows claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters of widespread election fraud in the 2020 election. Courts and independent investigations say they have found no evidence to support said claims.

Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, who oversees elections in Arkansas, said the federal proposal by Democrats would "create chaos" by allowing same day voter registration, eliminating the state’s voter ID requirement which was approved by voters and allow the state to count ballots cast by voters outside their assigned precinct, among other things.

The legislation was also criticized for taking away states’ ability to draw their own congressional districts and creating a system using federal dollars to match small donations. Cotton said that would result is taxpayer money helping to fund attack during campaigns.

Sen. John Boozman says given the balance of power in the Senate, he doesn’t expect the bill to pass, much less have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster unless rule changes he called unfair are made.

"This might be the one where they try to do away with the filibuster, or they say, well this is a very special bill, we’re gonna do away with it for this bill but not for the others so, it remains to the seen," Boozman said.

If the bill is passed by Congress, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge promises a legal challenge in court.

"We stand ready at the attorney general’s office to defend Arkansas’ state rights to defend our right to determine how we will conduct elections in the state of Arkansas. That this is constitutional issue under Article 1 and Article 2," Rutledge said.

However, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said election law needs to be federalized, just as highway law, currency and commerce laws are regulated. In an interview with Talk Business & Politics, he said politicians should work to make it easier to participate in the election process.

"If you’re elected to office and you’re against making it easier for people to vote, then maybe you’re scared to have to stand on your own rhetoric," Gray said.

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