Kristin Higgins Public Policy Center Phone: 501-671-2160 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Office: University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service 2301 S. University Avenue Little Rock, AR 72204
Eye-Care Referendum Likely for November Ballot
by Kristin Higgins - February 7, 2020
A ballot issue group wanting voters to decide the future of a new eye-care law have
collected enough voter signatures to put the issue on the statewide ballot in November.
The Arkansas Secretary of State's Office announced Jan. 31 that Safe Surgery Arkansas
collected enough voter signatures to put a referendum of Act 579 on the ballot.
The announcement came after the Arkansas Supreme Court and a Pulaski County Circuit
Court judge rejected efforts to block the referendum.
New Arkansas Election Law Complicates Referendum Process
After much debate in the 2019 legislative session, Arkansas legislators passed Act
579 to expand the number of eye-related medical procedures optometrists could perform.
Previously, those procedures were only able to be performed by ophthalmologists, who
are medical doctors.
Arkansas provides a process for the public to challenge new state laws through a referendum
on the statewide ballot. Collect signatures from 6% of the people who voted for governor
in the last election and you can call a referendum on a new state law.
Safe Surgery Arkansas collected more than the required 53,491 voter signatures to hold a
referendum on Act 579, known as "An Act to Amend the Definition of 'Practice of Optometry.'"
But complicating the matter was the fact that Arkansas legislators also passed a new
election law during the same legislative session. Act 376 requires campaigns to submit to the Secretary of State's Office paperwork proving
background checks were conducted on people paid to collect voter signatures before
canvassers collect their first signature.
Paperwork for Safe Surgery Arkansas' paid canvassers wasn't filed until after voter
signatures were collected, prompting the Secretary of State to void thousands of signatures.
The Secretary of State said Safe Surgery Arkansas didn't have enough valid voter signatures
to put the referendum on the ballot.
Safe Surgery Arkansas challenged the Secretary of State's decision to the Arkansas
Supreme Court, saying an emergency clause included in the new election law wasn't
valid because no real emergency existed. The group also claimed the law was unconstitutional.
In December, the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed only partially with the ballot issue
group, saying the emergency clause wasn't proper because of a lack of emergency. The
new law was not in effect at the time voter signatures were collected, they agreed.
But they did not rule on the constitutionality of the new election law.
The court ordered the Secretary of State to count the signatures that did not meet
the new paperwork requirement. Safe Surgery Arkansas ended with 64,028 valid signatures after the recount.
Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, a ballot issue group that supports Act 579 and expanding
optometrists' work, followed up with a new lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court
in another attempt to stop the referendum.
The group's argument: If the new election law wasn't in effect for canvasser paperwork,
then the same election law's change of who approves ballot titles wasn't in effect.
That would mean Safe Surgery Arkansas' referendum ballot title should have been approved
by the Attorney General and it wasn't.
On Jan. 28, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen said this latest challenge
is outside his jurisdiction and the challenge should made at the Arkansas Supreme
The referendum has survived all legal challenges to date. Voters should expect to
see the measure on their November ballot. But Arkansas is in new territory with referendums
because of Act 376.
The new election law requires the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners to certify
all statewide ballot titles before they are officially on the ballot. The Board of
Election Commissioners certified the referendum's ballot title in August.
Does that certification still count? Arkansans for Healthy Eyes says if the new election
law wasn't in effect, the referendum should have been approved under the old rules.
The before Act 376 required the Attorney General's Office to sign off on all ballot
Will there be another court challenge? The Arkansas Secretary of State has until Aug.
20 this year to finalize and certify the official November statewide ballot. A lot
can happen before then.