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Arkansas Election Commission rejects ballot initiatives relating to marijuana and casinos

Ronak Patel
Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, chairs the State Board of Election Commissioners. The commission voted against certifying Responsible Growth and Fair Play Arkansas' ballot titles and amendments.

The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday rejected ballot titles for Responsible Growth Arkansas and Fair Play for Arkansas.

After receiving the required amount of signatures needed to get on the ballot, groups must have their ballot titles and the description of how they want to change the state’s constitution approved by the Board of Election Commissioners.

The commission is chaired by Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, along with commissioners who are appointed by the governor, each political party (Republicans and Democrats), the speaker of the Arkansas House and the Senate president pro tem.

Prior to the hearings, Chris Madision, legal counsel for the commission, said that commissioners are responsible for making sure the ballot initiatives are not misleading. He added it should be clear what a yes vote and a no vote would do.

Responsible Growth Arkansas

Steve Lancaster, an attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, started his testimony by reminding commissioners of the popularity of the group’s ballot initiative.

“With Responsible Growth Arkansas we had almost 200,000 signatures who had the ballot title, popular name and amendment before them and signed this petition asking that this matter be put before the people,” Lancaster said.

Ronak Patel
Steve Lancaster, attorney for Responsible Growth Arkansas, said the group plans to appeal the State Board of Election Commissioners decision.

According to Responsible Growth’s website, its proposal would amend the state’s constitution to legalize cultivation and sale of cannabis to adults by commercial facility, which would be regulated.

Throughout his testimony, Lancaster argued that a ballot title doesn’t have to be perfect, doesn’t have to anticipate every legal challenge that could occur or go into detail about each possible change to the law.

“What you have to have is a fair summary and you can’t omit information that would cause a voter to potentially change their vote or misleading tendencies,” Lancaster said.

Commissioner Bilenda Harris-Ritter raised concerns with the ballot initiative’s lack of explanation on the change to Clause 5. Responsible Growth’s change to Clause 5 would make it to where a background check isn’t needed for those who own less than 5% of a dispensary or cultivation license.

“So wouldn’t it be possible for a group of people that could not pass a background check to go together to get a license and have every single owner of that dispensary be in need of background checks not required to have one?” Harris asked.

Lancaster said that Ritter’s math added up and that scenario would be possible, but he said that doesn’t disqualify the ballot initiative.

“Under the state Supreme Court’s analysis that is one of those potentially very speculative things that the court doesn’t try to anticipate,” Lancaster said.

Ritter responded by saying as a voter she would want to know that the amendment could cause this type of change in the law.

Commissioners also raised concerns with the ballot initiative for omitting changes to laws that limited how much THC can be in products. Commissioner James Harmon Smith, III said that is important information that voters need.

“The limit on edibles is important because the potential is kids,” Smith said. “Edibles kind of look like gummy bears, kids get it and if there’s a limit on it the damage is limited. But this changes [the limit] the way I read it. It changed it and it’s not clear that the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) can cap it.”

Lancaster disagreed with commissioners.

“We believe that level of information and that level of detail you’re talking about is not required or sufficient for a ballot title,” Lancaster said.

After the hearing, Lancaster told reporters that Responsible Growth is prepared to file an appeal to the commission’s decision, which would take it to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Democratic Nominee for Arkansas Governor Chris Jones has come out in support of the Responsible Growth ballot initiative.

“Regardless of what one thinks personally about the prospect of legal recreational marijuana, the revenue created by this ballot initiative would support general fund investments that can unlock the potential of Arkansas – in areas like education starting with preschool, infrastructure starting with broadband, and economic development starting with jobs – while supporting the state drug court program, UAMS and law enforcement,” Jones said in a press release.

Libertarian Nominee for Arkansas Governor Ricky Dale Harrington supports the initiative but has some concerns with it.

“I support the amendment because I do not believe people using cannabis responsibly should be criminalized. It's unfortunate expungement will not be on the amendment and that it doesn't create more of a free-market for the state's cannabis industry,” Harrington said in a statement.

The campaign for Sarah Sanders, the Republican nominee for Arkansas governor, didn’t respond to emails from KUAR asking about the initiative.

Responses from candidates were sent before the Election Commission made its decision.

Fair Play for Arkansas

Similar to the Responsible Growth hearing, the commission didn’t vote to certify Fair Play for Arkansas’ ballot initiative for omitting information that could change voters’ minds.

According to Fair Play’s website, its ballot initiative would make changes to Amendment 100, which is the ballot initiative that allowed for casinos to be built in four counties — Pope (Russellville), Garland (Hot Springs), Jefferson (Pine Bluff) and Crittenden (West Memphis). The ballot measure would allow voters to exclude Pope County.

Ronak Patel
Former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, represents the Cherokee Nation. He argued before the group to the State Board of Election Commissioners not to certify Fair Play's ballot initiative.

“It turns out that Pope County voters don’t want a casino. We rejected Amendment 100 by a 3-2 margin, the highest NO vote of any county in the state,” Fair Play said on its website.

Betsy Murray, an attorney for Fair Play for Arkansas, said during the meeting that the wording of the ballot initiative is clear that it would stop future casinos from being built.

“We believe this 120-word ballot title is impartial in that it presents the issue for the voter and there can be no confusion about the effects or results of a yes or no vote,” Murray said.

She explained the changes to Amendment 100 would be clear to voters.

“It was presented to carve out, eliminate and the very common word of ‘repeal’ the authorization for a casino or casino gambling in Pope County,” Murray said. “This is asking voters to reconsider and change the authorization that Amendment 100 provided in the past.”

Dustin McDaniel, attorney for Cherokee Nation and former Democratic Arkansas Attorney General, argued the ballot initiative should not be certified since his client currently has a building license and has started construction.

“There’s no question the measure eliminates the Racing Commission’s authority to issue future licenses,” Mcdaniel said. “It’s just utterly silent on what to do about what’s already out there.”

McDaniel explained not including that information to voters could make them unaware of the impact the initiative could have on economic development. He added the taxpayers would be responsible for compensating the developers if the license is revoked, which he estimates could be up to a billion dollars.

Ben Cross, Pope County judge, agreed with McDaniel and said the measure makes it unclear to voters what the economic impact would be. Cross also added the wording of the ballot initiative is misleading. He said the measure uses the word ‘casinos’ even though there is only one casino in the county.

During her rebuttal, Murray argued that the measure is about casinos and not tax policy.

Commissioners also expressed concerns that the ballot initiative was misleading because there is a court case that could determine if Pope County can have a casino. Commissioner Wendy Brandon explained voters could vote to repeal the license and then a court could undo that, which means the initiative doesn’t guarantee the outcome it promises.

Ronak Patel was a reporter for KUAR News focusing on state and local government.