A federal judge ruled that Arkansas violated the Voting Rights Act with its six-voter limit for those who help people cast ballots in person, which critics had argued disenfranchised immigrants and people with disabilities.
In a 39-page ruling issued on Friday, Judge Timothy L. Brooks of the U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, Ark., wrote that Congress had explicitly given voters the choice of whom they wanted to assist them at the polls, as long as it was not their employer or union representative.
Arkansas United, a nonprofit group that helps immigrants, including many Latinos who are not proficient in English, filed a lawsuit in 2020 after having to deploy additional employees and volunteers to provide translation services to voters at the polls in order to avoid violating the state law, the group said. It described its work as nonpartisan.
State and county election officials have said the law was intended to prevent anyone from gaining undue influence.
Thomas A. Saenz is the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Arkansas United in the case. He said in an interview on Monday that the restrictions, enacted in 2009, constituted voter suppression and that the state had failed to present evidence that anyone had gained undue influence over voters when helping them at the polls.
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“You’re at the polls,” he said. “Obviously, there are poll workers are there. It would seem the most unlikely venue for undue voter influence to occur, frankly.”
Mr. Saenz’s organization, known as MALDEF, filed a lawsuit this year challenging similar restrictions in Missouri. There, a person is allowed to help only one voter.
In Arkansas, the secretary of state, the State Board of Election Commissioners and election officials in three counties (Washington, Benton and Sebastian) were named as defendants in the lawsuit challenging the voter-assistance restrictions. It was not immediately clear whether they planned to appeal the ruling.
Daniel J. Shults, the director of the State Board of Election Commissioners, said in an email on Monday that the agency was reviewing the decision and that its normal practice was to defend Arkansas laws designed to protect election integrity. He said that voter privacy laws in Arkansas barred election officials from monitoring conversations between voters and their helpers and that this made the six-person limit an “important safeguard” against improper influence.
“The purpose of the law in question is to prevent the systematic abuse of the voting assistance process,” Mr. Shults said. “Having a uniform limitation on the number of voters a third party may assist prevents a bad actor from having unlimited access to voters in the voting booth while ensuring voter’s privacy is protected.”
Chris Powell, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said in an email on Monday that the office was also reviewing the decision and having discussions with the state attorney general’s office about possible next steps.
Russell Anzalone, a Republican who is the election commission chairman in Benton County in northwestern Arkansas, said in an email on Monday that he was not familiar with the ruling or any changes regarding voter-assistance rules. He added, “I follow the approved State of Arkansas election laws.”
The other defendants in the lawsuit did not immediately respond on Monday to requests for comment.
In the ruling, Judge Brooks wrote that state and county election officials could legally keep track of the names and addresses of anyone helping voters at the polls. But they can no longer limit the number to six voters per helper, according to the ruling.
Mr. Saenz described the six-voter limit as arbitrary.
“I do think that there is a stigma and unfair one on those who are simply doing their part to assist those who have every right to be able to cast a ballot,” he said.
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