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Language for ‘Direct democracy’ amendment submitted to ease Arkansas’ ballot initiative process

The midterm elections are on Nov. 6
LA Johnson
A new proposal would make changes to Arkansas' citizen-led constitutional amendment process.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A civic group on Monday proposed language for a constitutional amendment intended to reform Arkansas’ ballot initiative process.

The measure would change parts of the initiative process that have frustrated ballot groups, including ballot title review and signature verification.

It would also limit the General Assembly’s power to make changes to constitutional amendments enacted by the people or the initiative process itself.

David Couch, an attorney known for his work on ballot measures, submitted the ballot title and popular name for the proposal on Monday. It is backed by the League of Women Voters and a coalition of direct-democracy advocates.

“As Arkansans, we have always been appreciative of and have jealously protected our right to direct democracy, and recently, the General Assembly and constitutional officers have shown a disregard for the people’s rights,” Couch said. “So this amendment is just another arrow in the quiver of the people’s effort to protect themselves from the politicians.”

If qualified and approved, the proposal would also require the state Legislature to take separate votes on bills and their corresponding emergency clauses at least 24 hours apart — an issue brought to the forefront last year by the LEARNS Act and litigation challenging its effective date.

Attorney General Tim Griffin has 10 days to decide whether to accept the submitted ballot title and popular name. If accepted, supporters would have until July 5 to gather 90,704 voters’ signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

The proposal joins a growing number of ballot initiatives trying for this year’s general election ballot. Arkansas is one of 15 states where citizens can propose constitutional amendments, state laws or referendums to veto legislative action.

Ballot title review

Arkansas’ attorney general long reviewed ballot titles and popular names until the General Assembly, with support of then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, shifted ballot title certification responsibility to the State Board of Election Commissioners in 2019.

That lasted only one cycle, and early last year, Act 194 of 2023 shifted this power back to the attorney general’s office.

Ballot groups have been frustrated with Griffin and his predecessors, feeling they often overstepped. This cycle has been no different, with a pair of groups appealing to the Arkansas Supreme Court over Griffin’s repeated rejections of their ballot language. (One group dropped its suit last week.)

The amendment offered Monday would remove the option for the attorney general to reject a measure’s ballot title and popular name outright. It would give him the option of approving the submitted language or substituting language he felt better summarizes the proposal.

Jeff LeMaster, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, confirmed Monday that the ballot title had been received and would receive the same review process as every ballot title does.

No legislative amending

People around the state Capitol have long debated whether the Legislature has the authority to make changes to constitutional amendments.

The Supreme Court is expected to soon be asked to decide this question in a case related to the 2016 amendment that legalized medical marijuana.

Under the measure submitted Monday, language would be added to the Constitution explicitly barring state lawmakers from amending or repealing any constitutional amendment approved by a vote of the people.

The Legislature would maintain the power to amend initiated acts through a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.

The measure would also mandate that the ballot titles and popular names for referendums match the names and titles assigned by the General Assembly to the law that a referendum is seeking to repeal.

No legislative changes to initiative process

Monday’s proposed initiative would also prohibit the Legislature from making changes to the initiative and referendum process.

Last year, the Legislature enacted a law increasing the number of counties from which ballot initiative groups must gather signatures to 50 from 15.

That law is being challenged in court by the League of Women Voters and state Sen. Bryan King.

Last year’s law came after a string of efforts to make the canvassing and initiative process more difficult.

In 2022, Arkansans voted down a legislatively referred amendment to raise the threshold for passing constitutional amendments and initiated acts from a simple majority to 60%.

In 2020, the Legislature referred an amendment to require canvassers to gather signatures from at least 45 counties and move up several petition deadlines, but roughly 56% of Arkansas voters rejected it.

Other legislative efforts to make canvassing more difficult have been struck down by the courts.

Monday’s submission would also allow canvassers to submit signatures for ballot measures by signing a declaration under the penalty of perjury that the signatures are legitimate to their knowledge rather than requiring the presence of a notary.

Lastly, the proposed amendment would prohibit future amendments from creating monopolies or giving specific powers, privileges or authority to individuals, corporations or private business entities.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.