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Capitol Access is an online column by Jacob Kauffman. His column aims to give people unique insights into the Arkansas legislative session.

New Challenge for Ballot Initiatives

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Legislation regulating canvassers working on ballot initiatives is making its way through the legislature this week. Advocates of the bill argue that steps need to be taken to ensure the integrity of the petition process. Opponents contend the legislation is designed to stifle the capacity of those seeking to put initiatives on the ballot.

The language of SB 821, sponsored by Keith Ingram (D), specifically calls into question the efforts of ballot initiative campaigns from the 2012 election cycle,

“Of the four petitions submitted, none had an initial validity rate in excess of fifty-six percent (56%), and three (3) of the petitions had an initial validity rate below thirty-one percent (31%)”

Issues of signature validity in petitions could include canvassers forging signatures, misrepresenting the initiative, or printing people’s names for them. On Tuesday, Senator Ingram took the floor and said, “paid canvassers come in from out of state with no vested interest other than to make money.”

The bill would require paid per signature canvassers to register with the Secretary of State biannually and complete a training course. It also creates standardized petitions, reports fraud to prosecutors and police, sets an 18 year and up age requirement,  and discards petitions if more than one county appears per petition page.

Chris Kell, Chief Strategist of Arkansans For Compassionate Care (Medical Marijuana), stands in opposition to SB 821, 

“Already, all signatures up to the minimum amount of 62,507 are certified by the Secretary of the State, so the groups paying the canvassers are out the money. There is no way for a canvasser to verify that someone is registered to vote out on the ground.
There are better approaches. For example, we independently verified our own signatures. We also instituted a policy that we would only pay per verified signature. That would take care of any fraud problems on the front end. It put too much liability on the canvassers considering their resources. It is a burden that is not justified and is totally unnecessary.”

Kell contends the effects of the legislation could be fatal for the future of ballot initiatives in Arkansas, “If this law had been in place for last cycle we would not have been on the ballot.” He also questioned the intent of the legislation,

“Several of the sponsors are from either West Memphis or Hot Springs. Oaklawn and Southland have monopolies on gambling in Arkansas yet nearly every election cycle since the 1990's there has been people trying to legalize casino gaming in Arkansas. By making it prohibitively difficult for anyone to get the signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, they are guaranteed to continue to have those monopolies.”

Another supporter of the bill, the Arkansas Family Counsel, opposes the upcoming campaigns for the Medical Marijuana Act and Marriage Equality Act.

The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday with a 29-1 vote. The bill will be taken up by the House State Agencies Committee this Friday morning.