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Arkansas Senate panel moves signature threshold bill forward for citizen initiatives

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the legal blows it has taken, are central to the current political fight over voting access.
Kaz Fantone for NPR
An Arkansas Senate panel on Thursday advanced new restrictions on the petition process.

The Senate State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee approved House Bill 1419 on Thursday (March 2) that would require petitioners to get signatures from 50 counties, instead of 15 counties, to get a citizen-led issue on the ballot.

According to the state’s Constitution, voter signatures from at least 15 counties are needed as part of the process to get an issue on the ballot.

Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, a sponsor of the bill, said HB1419 would benefit smaller counties.

“We would have a broader representation of counties and citizens collecting signatures. More rural counties would be represented in that,” he said in reference to the 50 county threshold.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, disagreed about who would benefit from the bill, arguing members of the legislature would benefit.

“It’s about power and control, that’s it. The members of this legislature want to have total control over the laws that are passed in Arkansas and they don’t want to give that ability to the people,” Tucker said.

Misty Orpin, executive director of Common Ground Arkansas, also expressed concerns over the constitutionality of the bill. In testimony to the committee, she said the bill makes a change to the state Constitution, which she argues needs to be referred to the voters. Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and chair of the committee, asked Orpin if she believed a constitutional change or statutory change was being made, to which Orpin answered constitutional. Johnson disagreed and said the change being made was statutory, instead of constitutional.

Lawmakers also disagreed about whether voters want changes to the ballot initiative process. Tucker said voters rejected ballot initiatives that in the past intended to increase the amount of signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot. Dotson disagreed and explained it is hard to tell why voters rejected a ballot initiative because they have multiple components to them.

“I can’t speak completely for every voter and what they were thinking on those proposals because sometimes they’re not as clear,” Dotson said.

Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, agreed with Dotson and said constituents tell him they reject ballot initiatives because they are often lengthy and they aren’t sure what they will do.

“It bogs down the polling process if they stand there and try to read them,” Payton said.

Orpin was the only member of the public to speak for or against the bill. When speaking against the bill, she said she agrees with supporters of the bill that the Arkansas Constitution is too easy to amend. However, she added she disagrees with supporters that HB1419 solves the issue. Orpin argued legislators, and not the public, are the ones who want to make it easy to change the state’s Constitution.

“In looking back over the past few decades of ballot issues, 58% of all issues on the ballot have been constitutional amendments by you guys [legislators],” she said, while noting 17% come from the public. “This bill does nothing to curb the ability of the legislature to amend the Constitution.”

Orpin also said she believes the bill would lead to an increase in the amount of out-of-state money that gets used to put issues on the ballot.

“This bill would make ballot access more expensive and likely cause Arkansans looking to place something on the ballot to cast a bigger net for funding,” Orpin said.

The bill cleared the panel along party lines. Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, was not present for the meeting.