Updated 9/21/2016 at 10:50 AM.
It is election time again, which brings up a reoccurring issue. Why doesn’t Arkansas require voters to present photo identification?
You may be thinking, but they asked for my ID at the poll. You may have shown a photo ID but a photo ID it is NOT required. You could even shown a utility bill.
Senator King’s 2013 law. In 2013, Senator King passed legislation to require photo ID, On its initial passage the bill, SB2 of 2013, even received support from two Senate Democrats and one House Democrat. Then, former Governor Mike Beebe (D) vetoed the bill. Governor Beebe’s influence got the Democrats to withdraw their support for Voter ID but there were enough Republican votes to pass the bill in both houses. Despite Beebe’s pressure another House Democrat voted for the measure.
Court Action. After Voter ID was passed, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the law, but only because voting provisions in the Arkansas Constitution made it necessary to add the requirement by an amendment to the Constitution instead of by a bill.
Senator King’s 2015 resolution to propose an amendment to the Arkansas’ Constitution. In 2015, Senator King tried again to pass Voter ID. This time by a resolution proposing an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, (SJR 7 of 2015). It should have been easy. In 2013 Republicans had a majority in both the House and Senate. In 2015 the Republican majorities increased in both houses. Only a majority vote was needed to propose Voter ID as Constitutional Amendment, yet, Senator King’s Voter Id legislation never got out of committee.
Why didn’t the Republican majority legislature approve Senator King’s 2015 resolution to send a proposed Constitutional Amendment for voter approval this election? His proposal never made progress because a mere four Senate Democrats had the power to block the proposal.
The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs has eight members. A majority vote requires the vote of five members. But, the committee is currently made up of four Republicans and four Democrats, which means the four Democrat Senators were able to block Voter ID or any other election, ethics, or state agency legislation assigned to the committee.
Selection of Senate committee memberships
State Senators choose committees based on seniority. Since the Democrats were the majority party in the Senate until 2013 the Democrats still have several of the most senior members in the Senate. Six of the top eight Senators in seniority are Democrats. The next eight Senators are all Republicans.
Here are the current Democrats on the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee and their seniority ranking.
#1 David Johnson
#3 Joyce Elliott
#5 Linda Chesterfield
#8 David Burnett
Can the Republican majority gain a majority of the committee membership in 2017?
Republicans are the majority party in the Senate, but under the current Senate Rules it will be difficult for the Republicans to gain a majority on the Senate committee.
One of the four Democrats will not be back in 2017. Senator David Johnson did not run for reelection. There is also a chance that one other Democrat might not be back in 2017. Senator David Burnett of Osceola has a Republican opponent in November. How hard the Republican Party will try to unseat Burnett remains to be seen. Establishment Republicans may not be anxious to unseat Senator Burnett since he has been a supporter of Governor Hutchinson’s Obamacare Medicaid Expansion (Private Option/ Arkansas Works.)
Even if Burnett were to be defeated there are two other Senate Democrats with seniority who could decide to step in to ensure Democrats have four committee seats to block conservative legislation. Senator Larry Teague (D) from Texarkana is #4 in seniority and Senator Stephanie Flowers (D) of Pine Bluff who is #7 in seniority. However, it should be noted, in 2013, Teague voted for Senator King’s Voter ID bill, but Governor Beebe vetoed the measure and got Teague and another Democrat not to support the veto override.
Although the Republicans hold a strong majority in the Senate and House and although it seems a sure bet that Voter ID would pass if the proposal made it on the floor of the Senate and House, there is a good chance four Democrats will be able to block Senator King’s Voter ID amendment again in 2017 and on into the future.
Where is the outrage?
Where is the outrage that Senate Rules allows a mere four Democrats to block conservative legislation? It was only a few months ago that the media, the Governor, and others expressed outrage that the Arkansas Constitution allows ten fiscally conservative Senators to hold up a budget appropriation. Yet four Democrats stop Voter ID based on taking advantage of a Senate organizational rule, and there is not a peep of criticism of the four Democrats.
Committee selection doesn’t have to be that way
Senate Rules are not carved in stone. The Rules are not even carved into law. If Republican Senators want to change the way committee assignments are made, they have the votes to do so.
One potential change that has been discussed in previous years is to make Senate and House assignments based on “proportional representation.” Under proportional representation the membership of each committee would be divided between Republicans and Democrats based on the percentage each party has of the full membership of that chamber. This means the majority party would have a majority of the membership of each committee. It also means the minority party wouldn’t be under represented on some committees. Seniority would then be used to pick slots within the number of slots allotted to your party.
(We haven’t focused on the same subject matter committee in the House of Representatives, but the House committee system is based on seniority within each congressional district, with each Congressional District having the same number of members on the committee. The congressional district system in the House came into being when the Democrat Party controlled nearly every seat so party differences were less important than regional interests.)
Do we think the Senate and House will make changes to their current systems of selecting committee assignments? It is unlikely the Rules will be changed. Collegiality among state legislators remains a big factor in Arkansas politics, which means sometimes conservative measures take a back seat.
Meanwhile, Senator Bryan King is likely to keep trying to pass Voter ID and other conservative legislation. Thank you Senator King.