CHICAGO – A federal court has rejected a request by Arkansas and local county officials to dismiss a lawsuit challenging sections of the state election code that disenfranchise voters who are not proficient in English.
The suit was filed in November by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and attorney Lawrence A. Walker of Little Rock on behalf of Arkansas United, an immigrants’ rights group, and its executive director.
“Setting an arbitrary limit on those who may be assisted by others to cast an effective vote is anti-democratic,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “The limit does nothing to obtain fairer elections; indeed, this law deters participation by persons with every right to vote in elections in Arkansas.”
At issue is a section of Arkansas’ election code that prohibits voters from selecting an individual of their choice to help them vote when that individual has already helped six other voters.
MALDEF attorneys argue such limits violate Section 208 of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, which provides that a voter who requires assistance to vote, including for reasons of inability to read the ballot, may bring a person of his or her choice to assist in casting the ballot.
“The right to vote is one of our most fundamental rights in America, and when a voter’s ability to do so is hampered that right must be protected,” said Griselda Vega Samuel, MALDEF’s Midwest regional counsel. “Our clients are supporting their members and all Arkansas voters who need language support to meaningfully cast their vote, as is their right under the federal Voting Rights Act. MALDEF will fight to ensure that all Arkansas voters can choose to have a person help them cast their vote without facing criminal prosecution.”
In his 33-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks denied the motion to dismiss filed by the state, Benton and Sebastian counties, writing that “Congress intended Section 208 to cover voters with limited English proficiency,” and that Congress had the authority to enact such provisions.
A hearing is scheduled in the case on February 9 to assess pretrial case deadlines.