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History of Arkansas ballot initiatives explores 50%, 60% threshold of Issue 2

Arkansas Capitol
Michael Hibblen
The Arkansas General Assembly backed the proposed constitutional amendment being considered in the upcoming election that would require a 60% threshold for future legislative-referred or citizen-initiated proposals.

Voters are casting ballots for and against Issue 2, which would raise the threshold for passage of proposed constitutional amendments and citizen-led initiated acts from 50% to 60%.

Issue 2, which was proposed by the Arkansas General Assembly, would require the 60% threshold for legislative-referred or citizen-initiated proposed constitutional amendments as well as initiated acts that are citizen-sponsored.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, was the lead sponsor on Issue 2. He says the proposal is needed to keep out-of-state interests from influencing state laws and to create more consensus for policies to be changed.

“Our Constitution is our state’s charter document, and it doesn’t need to read like a book of statutes,” Ray said in a recent Talk Business & Politics interview.

Kwami Abdul-Bey is the elections coordinator for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which is part of a coalition opposing Issue 2. He contends the measure limits citizens’ abilities to shape public policy outside of the legislative arena.

“We are opposed to any power being taken from the people, any power being restricted, any power being hampered, any power being in any way diminished,” he said.

Polling from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College indicates that voters are evenly split on Issue 2. In a poll conducted Oct. 17-18, 2022 among 974 likely voters, roughly 38.5% supported the proposal, while 38.5% were opposed. Still, 23% of voters were undecided.

A long history

The Arkansas Secretary of State’s office has compiled a list of ballot initiative votes dating back to 1938. Analysis of those measures provides perspective on how the 60% threshold might have changed Arkansas’ 1874 Constitution if Issue 2 had been in place for decades.

For instance, in 1944 voters approved a measure to make the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission an independent state agency by a 61%-39% vote. There had been previous amendment proposals to accomplish this, but they failed overwhelmingly.

That same year, a proposal to eliminate the poll tax for members of the armed forces passed by an 80%-20% margin. It wasn’t until 1964 that the poll tax was altogether eliminated by a 56%-44% vote of the people.

The Mack-Blackwell amendment that made the State Highway Commission an independent entity was approved 75%-25% in 1952 on the heels of an alleged highway contractor scandal.

In the 1984 general election, voters gave state constitutional officers, including the Governor, four-year terms of office instead of two-year terms. That measure, Amendment 64, passed 64%-36%.

In 1990, voters repealed Amendment 44 of the state Constitution by a mere 51%-49% margin. That amendment, which had been on the books since 1956 in response to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, allowed state government to nullify federal integration laws. Known as the “interposition” amendment, Amendment 44 was first approved by voters in the 1956 general election by a 56%-44% margin.

1990 also saw a citizen-led initiative, spearheaded by attorney-activist Scott Trotter, establish the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which incorporated the state’s first ethics laws for public officials and lobbyists. The initiated act passed with 66% support from voters that year. Trotter thinks Issue 2 would tip the scales for citizen advocacy at the ballot box to those with deep pockets.

“If Issue 2 is added to the Arkansas Constitution, the interests with superior funds will have an enhanced advantage in gaining voter approval of ballot issues they support and in defeating ballot issues they oppose. And, voting on ballot issues will be controlled by a minority of those voting on those issues,” he said. “Moreover, Issue 2 does much more than reduce the opportunity to amend the Arkansas Constitution. Issue 2 also mandates approval by a 60% supermajority of voters for laws proposed through the ballot issue process.”

Here are some other more recent ballot issues with a brief description and the final vote tallies to indicate their passage.

1992 – Arkansas term limits (59.91%-40.09%)
1996 – School financing, in response to Lake View decision (52%-48%)
1996 – 1/8th cent conservation tax for Game & Fish, Parks & Tourism (51%-49%)
2000 – Revision of judicial article that reworked state court system (57%-43%)
2000 – Tobacco settlement funds act (64%-36%)
2004 – Economic superproject amendment (64%-36%)
2008 – Fiscal legislative sessions (69%-31%)
2008 – State lottery for scholarships (63%-37%)
2010 – Right to hunt, trap or fish (83%-17%)
2012 – Half-cent sales tax for roads (58%-42%)
2016 – Medical marijuana amendment (53%-47%)
2018 – Act to raise minimum wage (68%-32%)
2018 – Casino amendment (54%-46%)
2020 – Renewal of 2012 half-cent sales tax for roads (55%-45%)

You can access the full initiatives and amendments document here.

Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics.