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Inside the citizen ballot initiative process in Arkansas

The midterm elections are on Nov. 6
LA Johnson
Arkansas is one of a handful of states that allows voters to propose new laws and constitutional amendments through the citizen ballot initiative process.

David Dinwiddie loves old cars; he thinks they’re more comfortable and stylish than new models, are easier to fix, and represent pieces of history.

But he says it’s getting harder to preserve older models. For years, anyone with a vehicle 25 years or older could register their car as antique. That means any car made before 1999 could be considered an antique. But, in 2019, lawmakers changed the minimum vehicle age to 45.

Once the law passed, Dinwiddie knew he had to try and change it.

“It’s a really stupid law,” Dinwiddie says. “Someone needs to go do this. Well nobody’s doing it, I’ll go do it.”

For Dinwiddie, it's an issue of principle. That’s what inspired him to try to change the law through a citizen ballot initiative. Arkansas is one of 15 states where voters can propose state laws and constitutional amendments through a ballot initiative process.

Kristin Netterstrom Higgins is a program associate with the Public Policy Center at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Part of her job is providing nonpartisan information about ballot issues to voters. She says people who want to submit a ballot initiative must first decide if they want to submit a state law or a constitutional amendment.

“If they’re wanting an amendment it’s going to require more voter signatures than a state law,” Higgins says. “Other than that, the process is very similar in that you have to create a ballot title, you have to write your proposed law and submit the title to the attorney general’s office.”

That’s just the beginning of the long process. Once a ballot issue is filed, the attorney general’s office has ten business days to submit a formal decision. If the title is approved, the group can begin to gather signatures.

Dinwiddie says his antique car proposal was approved once before, but he didn’t gather enough signatures to put it on the ballot. Because he’s proposing a state law, not a constitutional amendment, he would need over 72,000 signatures from voters across the state.

“Even if you go get one, that would be way more work than what you think,” Dinwiddie says.

Getting that many signatures means taking days off work, driving long distances, and knocking on doors to engage as many people as possible before the summer deadline. And this year, gathering signatures will be even more challenging. A law passed in 2023 says those signatures need to come from at least 50 of the 75 counties in Arkansas. Before 2023, ballot issues only needed signatures from 15 counties.

Signatures also have to come from registered Arkansas voters. A civic health report released by the Clinton School of Public Service last year found Arkansas has the lowest voter registration and turnout rates in the nation.

But even if sponsors collect enough valid signatures, that’s not a guarantee the issue will become law. Four citizen-led initiatives were on the ballot in 2022, but none passed. Higgins says it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen. According to her, ballot issues typically cover a wide range of subjects.

“They’re usually a reflection of conversation, legislation or other interests that have been in place for years,” Higgins says. “What you see on the ballot is usually a reflection of conversation that’s been going on for a decade or two.”

Six issues were submitted in 2023, and more have been filed this year, but Attorney General Tim Griffin has only accepted three ballot titles so far.

One group wants to expand abortion access in Arkansas by proposing a ballot amendment. If passed, the Arkansas Abortion Amendment would allow the procedure up to eighteen weeks after fertilization, and limit abortions except in the cases of fatal fetal anomalies, rape or incest, and when the mother’s health is in danger.

Sam Watson is the content director for For AR People, the group sponsoring the amendment. He thinks the opportunity to put this issue before voters speaks to the culture of Arkansas.

“Well you know the state motto is ‘regnat populus’, the people rule.” Watson says. “We have this undercurrent of populism running through our state’s history of just Arkansans standing up and saying “‘no the government really isn’t allowed to do this.’”

Sponsors of proposed constitutional amendments face a steeper climb than those proposing new state laws; they’ll need over 90,000 signatures to get their issues before voters. Of the other two proposals accepted so far, both are amendments. One would limit rules for absentee ballots in upcoming elections, and the other would do away with taxes on menstrual products and diapers. Higgins says this kind of proposal is unusual for Arkansas. She says Arkansans often see or suggest proposals to raise the sales tax.

Even for the approved issues, the process is long and complicated–and time to collect signatures is running out. All signatures must be gathered and submitted to the Secretary of State by July 5 of this year. And then, voters still have to show up to the polls to vote in November.

Maggie Ryan is a reporter and local host of All Things Considered for Little Rock Public Radio.