Chris Burks on Voting: a fundamental right in Arkansas

I’m reposting an Arkansas Times OpEd by Chris Burks, an Election Commissioner in Pulaski County.


Our Arkansas constitution guarantees that “no power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” In other words, voting is a fundamental right.

We have come far to get to the point that voting is a fundamental right. In 1961, well within memory for many, there were zero African-American citizens registered to vote in Amite County, Miss. Zero.

It took the courageous organizing of a young man named Bob Moses to ensure that constitutional rights actually meant something more than mere words on paper.

In 1961, Moses went to the courthouse in tiny Liberty, Miss., the Amite County seat. Moses and an African-American farmer and minster were beaten senseless by a sheriff’s deputy and others that first day they tried to register to vote.

Bloodied and bandaged, Moses announced to an assembled crowd the night of the beating that it occurred to him that he was no different than any other man. It occurred to him that “all” were created equal.

So Moses went back to the Liberty courthouse the next week. And the next. Moses didn’t quit until all could exercise their fundamental right to vote.

We have come a long way since 1961, and racial animus is not nearly what it once was. But even if a law is passed with the best of intentions, laws that disproportionately impact elderly, minority or poor should give us pause.

Now Arkansans’s fundamental right to vote may be threatened.

Act 595 of the 2013 Arkansas General Assembly is known as the Voter ID law. The Arkansas Voter ID law is similar to other laws enacted around the nation during President Obama’s time in office. Courts in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have found that these so-called Voter ID laws place additional burdens on the right to vote. Courts have specifically held that these Voter ID laws also disproportionately impact elderly, minority and poor voters.

In the past, the Arkansas Supreme Court has found that our state constitution is the “fortification within which the people have entrenched themselves for the preservation of their rights and privileges.”

As ever, it’s important not to forget our history. The fortress that defends our rights only survives if those we elect vigilantly stand watch.

The statistics are clear that the Arkansas Voter ID law today disproportionately impacts elderly, minority and poor voters. Even if you buy the argument that the Voter ID law is valid on its face, the law’s implementation has been messy and unequal at best — many voters from the May 20 primary say poll workers illegally quizzed them about the information on their ID.

Gov. Mike Beebe has said that the Voter ID law that passed over his veto was an expensive solution in search of a problem. The problem the Voter ID law seeks to address — in-person vote fraud — is not a problem in Arkansas. A separate absentee bearer issue may be the real culprit, if there is one to be found.

A young woman named Freedom is now one of the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the Arkansas Voter ID law.

How appropriate.

Just as Moses took a stand in Liberty, Miss., Freedom is now fighting in Little Rock. Let’s hope our state Supreme Court takes note, and remembers that we are who we are because of where we have come from.

Interview with Chris Burks, Pulaski County Election Commissioner

Today, I’m interviewing Chris Burks, the newly elected Pulaski County Election Commissioner. Chris always makes me feel bad that I’m not more involved (I mean, he doesn’t put a guilt trip on me or anything, just watching everything he does makes me feel bad for not being more involved). Chris is a great example of how young attorneys can make a big difference.
I clerked with Chris in Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy County. It really was fun! Anyway, Chris wasn’t content with just clerking. He started writing a column for the Conway paper and got really involved in the local political scene within weeks of moving there. Following his clerkship with Judge Wood, Chris clerked with Judge Susan Hickey. Chris is now an attorney here in Pulaski County at the Sanford Law Firm. His wife, Haley (whom I have also had the pleasure to clerk with) is an attorney at the Rose Firm.
But, I asked Chris for an interview because he was recently elected to be a Pulaski County Election Commissioner. Without further ado…
HLB:  Chris, you’re a young lawyer and you were recently elected to be an Election Commissioner.  Some people may wonder; what exactly is an Election Commissioner anyway?  Should attorneys and voters care?  
CB: Thank you for asking and great blawg, by the way.  Commissioners sit on County Election Commissions.  Each of our 75 Arkansas counties have Election Commissions, and the Commissions are charged with overseeing elections in their respective Arkansas county.
Here is a link to some of the basic duties of Election Commissions:
HLB:  So, I see that the Election Commissions oversee recounts, is that the only exciting part of the position?  As in Bush vs. Gore 2000 Florida recount exciting?
CB:  Well, knock on wood, something like the Bush v. Gore situation is very, very unlikely to happen here.
The Pulaski County Election Commission staff is incredibly professional and works hard year round.  My main goals as a Commissioner are to do my job and ensure that:
1) The Commission stays out of Court and follows all applicable laws, regulations and procedures.
2) Voter trust remains high.
HLB: So this sounds all well and good, but why should attorneys really care?  Isn’t election administration and law a pretty esoteric area of law?
CB:  I’ll admit it easy to be cynical or turned off by politics and elections.  I really do get that.  At the same time, I think attorneys, whatever our flaws may be, we have some skills.  And I genuinely believe that, historically, an integral part of our profession is using what we’ve been taught in service of others.  So I think all attorneys, be it in the form of pro bono work, community service, or working in government, truly can contribute to the common good in our own unique way.
HLB:  So what should we look for in the upcoming elections?
CB:  As a Commissioner I’ll be busy certifying results on election nights and have to be neutral in all ways.  I will add that raising awareness about the work of the Commission, and the voting process in general, is something I’ll continue to plug.  It may sound cliche, but what many call America’s great experiment, representative democracy, continues.  While not perfect, it will certainly falter without citizen engagement and, in my opinion, not be as strong without each generation of attorneys doing their part.
Thanks for the interview Chris, and I will look forward to seeing you at the polls!