WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Sept. 28, a federal appellate court paused a lower court’s ruling that expanded voter assistance in Arkansas. This decision comes out of a lawsuit filed in 2020 by Arkansas United and its founder Mireya Reith against Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston (R), the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners and three county election commissions challenging Arkansas election statutes that made it a crime to help more than six voters in one election. The plaintiffs argued that the laws restricting voter assistance disproportionately harmed voters with limited English proficiency who rely on assistance to cast their ballots in violation of Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which ensures that voters with disabilities or voters who have limited English proficiency and need help reading and writing English can access the ballot box. On Aug. 19, a federal district court in Arkansas struck down the laws that limited the amount of times a person could assist voters in an election. The Sept. 28 decision released by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals paused the district court’s ruling, meaning the laws that criminalize assisting more than six voters will remain in place for the 2022 midterm elections.
Many voters in Arkansas with limited English proficiency need assistance to vote, according to Arkansas United. The plaintiffs note that “there were more Latino [limited English proficiency] voters that needed assistance in casting their ballot at the polls during the 2020 General Election than in prior elections.” Wednesday’s decision means that, during the 2022 midterm elections, individuals with groups like Arkansas United will only be able to assist six voters. In the order, the judge cited the Purcell principle, the idea that courts should not change voting or election rules too close to an election in order to avoid confusion for voters and election officials alike. Because the order is only one paragraph with no explanation, the judge does not explain why allowing for a more robust voter assistance program will confuse or disenfranchise voters. Today’s ruling is a loss for Arkansas voters with limited English proficiency who need assistance to cast their ballots.