Judge Says Arkansas Voters Can Sign Ballot Petitions Without Canvasser As Witness
A federal judge said Monday that Arkansas voters can sign ballot issue petitions without a canvasser witnessing it, easing some requirements during the pandemic for citizen initiative groups to collect the nearly 90,000 voter signatures required to put proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot.
"The requirement that signatures be made in person is overly burdensome in light of criminal laws that accomplish the same results of preventing fraud and maintaining integrity of the process without the need for personal contact ...," wrote U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes in a preliminary injunction order lifting several in-person requirements while he continues to review the case.
Arkansas Voters First, which wants to refer to voters a constitutional amendment changing how legislative districts are created in Arkansas after federal Censuses, filed the lawsuit in federal court. The group had started collecting voter signatures for its proposed amendment in early March but stopped once people in the United States realized the seriousness of the virus.
With the July 3 deadline to submit signatures looming, it seemed unlikely any ballot issue group could collect the required signatures in person. Canvassers typically go to high traffic areas to collect voter signatures but spring festivals canceled and popular venues closed in response to COVID-19 concerns and requirements for social distancing.
Canvassers are required by state law to sign affidavits in front of a notary public saying they witnessed the voter signing their name. Ordinarily the Secretary of State's Office would toss any petition that lack either one of their signatures, meaning the voter signature would not be counted.
The May 25 order makes it possible for voters to print off their own petitions, sign it and mail in the petition to ballot issue groups, or for people to sign petitions left on counters at stores. A copy of the popular name and ballot title would still have to be provided to voters to read before signing, but the election information could be posted with the petition online, included in a mailed copy or posted next to a petition left on a counter.
"Arkansas has criminalized petition fraud," the order stated, sharing that violating one law put a person in danger of serving up to six years in prison and paying a $10,000 fine or one year in jail and a $2,500 fine if they knowingly falsified information on a petition.
Judge Holmes did not extend the July 3 deadline for signature collection as requested or agree to allow electronic voter signatures, saying in the opinion and order that deadlines were a necessary part of state business and that electronic signatures right now may cause more problems in matching voter signatures.
The judge continues to review the lawsuit and said he would like to expedite its resolution. The preliminary injunction is in place until a final ruling is made.
The order did not appear to be limited to only Arkansas Voters First. Several other ballot issue groups have paused their signature gathering in light of COVID-19.
Supporters of seven other proposals have also filed paperwork with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, indicating they were raising and spending money on their ballot measures. These proposals involved marijuana, gaming machines, reducing sales tax on used cars sales, changing legislative term limits and expunging peoples' marijuana-related convictions. For links to those measures, go to uaex.edu/ballot.
Arkansas True Grass had already been asking supporters to request petitions via mail that people could sign but last week decided to abandon their efforts for getting the Arkansas Recreational Marijuana Amendment the 2020 ballot. They have turned their sights to the 2022 ballot and filed updated paperwork on May 22, according to their Facebook page.
For the 2020 ballot, proposed constitutional amendments require 89,151 valid voter signatures and proposed initiated acts, or state laws, require 71,321 valid voter signatures. These signatures must be collected from at least 15 different counties.