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Ballot Issue Groups Sue to Force Signature Count

by Kristin Higgins - July 20, 2020

Sponsors of two proposed constitutional amendments have asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to immediately force the Secretary of State to count thousands of signatures submitted to qualify their measures for the November ballot.

Bonnie Miller, a Fayetteville resident representing Arkansas Voters First, filed the lawsuit Friday. She submitted thousands of signatures July 6 for a proposed amendment that would change who creates political boundaries for Arkansas’ state legislators and U.S. representatives. The group also submitted signatures for a proposed amendment that would allow all candidates for certain offices to appear on the same primary ballot and in the general election, allow voters to rank their top four choices. 

Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston on July 14 notified Arkansas Voters First that their petitions were invalid. Accompanying paperwork for the paid canvassers who collected voter signatures was flawed and the flaw meant he could not count any of the signatures.

What was the flaw? Submitted paperwork indicated criminal background checks for the paid canvassers were acquired and not that they had passed the required background checks. Thurston sent the same notice to sponsors of a third proposed amendment seeking to expand the number of casinos in Arkansas. 

His reasoning follows a special judge’s opinion in a lawsuit challenging the placement of a referendum on the statewide ballot. Judge Mark Hewett said in his July 13 report that more than 51,000 signatures submitted by a campaign seeking a referendum on Act 579 should not count because of the “acquired” terminology for canvassers.

“The Secretary of State’s summation of the certifications provided by paid canvassers for Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas is conveniently incomplete. Notably, the certifications paid canvassers for Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas provided each indicated that they were in compliance with Ark. Code Ann 7-9-601,” the lawsuit filed July 17 states.

The lawsuit also calls the decision contradictory because Thurston counted the signatures filed for the referendum last year submitted with the same paperwork.

“Said contradictory approaches reflect that, rather than fulfill the duties of his job, the Secretary of State has instead decided to rely upon sophistry in an attempt to thwart the statewide initiative process,” the complaint states.

Miller is also asking the court to grant them 30 days to collect additional voter signatures for a second batch of petitions to be submitted. This practice is known as a “cure period” and allows ballot issue groups more time to gather signatures in case some of the initial ones wind up being invalid. Signatures can be deemed invalid for a number of reasons, such as being a duplicate, illegible, or the signer is not a registered voter.

The statewide ballot must be certified and provided to counties by Aug. 20, a month from today.

In a response filed today, Thurston denies he failed to perform his duties and that the state law he cited speaks for itself. It's unclear whether the signatures are being counted but the reply to the Arkansas Supreme Court seems to indicate some basic counting is taking place:

"9. Thurston denies that he has failed to perform his duties required by Ark. Code Ann. § 7-9-126. Starting July 6, 2020, when three petitions were submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office, Thurston began the statutory intake procedures for a facial analysis of the petitions. As of the date of this filing, Thurston continues the intake procedures for all three petitions, well within the statutory 30-days allowed by the statute.

10. Thurston states that Ark. Code Ann. § 126(a) speaks for itself. As stated in the previous paragraph, Thurston is currently performing an initial count of the signatures in order to determine whether or not the petitions, on their face, contain the designated number of signatures required by the Arkansas Constitution and statutory law in order to certify the measure for the election ballot."

The reply also includes:

21. Thurston denies that his decision not to validate whether or not the signatures on the two petitions submitted by Arkansas Voters First are of registered voters is a violation of Ark. Code Ann. § 7-9-126. Furthermore, the intake analysis of the two petitions is ongoing (the Secretary is statutorily provided with 30 days from July 6, 2020), thus it is possible that one or both of the petitions submitted by Arkansas Voters First could fail for other reasons, including not having enough facially valid signatures after the statutorily provided culling procedures that make up the intake analysis...

Follow the court case, CV-20-454 - BONNIE MILLER V JOHN THURSTON SOS, online at https://caseinfo.arcourts.gov/cconnect/PROD/public/ck_public_qry_doct.cp_dktrpt_frames?backto=P&case_id=CV-20-454&begin_date=&end_date=.

Arkansas Wins in 2020, the group seeking to expand the number of casinos in Arkansas, sent a letter Monday to the Secretary of State saying they had submitted the appropriate paperwork in an email on July 6. An attorney for the group asked Thurston to withdraw his letter of insufficiency to them.

Arkansas is one of 15 states where citizens can propose a constitutional amendment or state law for voters to decide. Proposed amendments need 89,151 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Arkansas Voters First submitted 98,728 ballots for the redistricting proposal and 94,913 signatures for the ranked choice voting proposal.

As of July 20, only a sales tax proposal known as Issue 1 is uncontested. Issue 2, involving term limits for legislators, and Issue 3, involving changes to the citizen initiative process, are being challenged in court. The three proposals were referred by the legislature.

Find more information about the 2020 ballot measures at uaex.edu/ballot

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