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Arkansas judge hears arguments in lawsuit over signature collection

The Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock.
Michael Hibblen
Little Rock Public Radio
The Pulaski County Courthouse in downtown Little Rock.

A judge says he will decide next week whether to dismiss a lawsuit challenging new signature requirements for ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments in Arkansas.

If someone in Arkansas wants to put an initiative on the ballot for voters to approve, they have to get it okayed by the attorney general and then collect tens of thousands of signatures. This can be a long process; volunteers have spent months campaigning for ballot measures.

Right now, several groups are working to collect signatures to get their amendments on the ballot. Arkansans for Limited Government is working to collect signatures for an amendment that would roll back the state's abortion ban. Arkansas Citizens for Transparency is working to collect signatures to enshrine FOIA in the state constitution. Other groups are trying to collect signatures to remove the sales tax on diapers and menstrual products.

The Arkansas Constitution says signatures must be collected from 8% of people in 15 counties. This language is in Article 5 section 1 of the Constitution. “It shall be necessary,” it says, “to file from at least fifteen of the counties of the State.” This was made law by an amendment the people voted on in 1910.

Last year, the legislature passed Act 236. The law will change the minimum number of counties from 15 to 50. This makes it far more difficult for citizens to pass amendments. Meanwhile, the legislature is allowed to add up to three constitutional amendments each year to the ballot.

Act 236 was initially put forward by Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, and Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-Cave Springs. It mirrored language from a constitutional amendment put on the ballot by the legislature in 2020 called the “Initiative Process and Legislative Referral Requirements Amendment.” It added a few more rules about the days when signatures can be submitted. It was rejected by voters; 55.9% of voters voted no, while 44% voted yes.

When it went through the legislature, supporters of Act 236 said it would give rural Arkansas more of a voice. Supporters said they want to prevent out-of-state special interest groups from unfairly influencing elections.

“All they have to do is collect signatures from 15 counties,” Underwood said. “And typically those counties are the larger counties and the more populated counties.”

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, argued the bill would have the opposite effect.

“This would make it much harder for the average Arkansan to get something done,” she said. “This is going to make it so it's only the extremely well-funded out-of-state interest groups who can afford the kind of work that goes into these signatures.”

In a Senate committee, Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said many of his constituents don't know enough about amendments they find on the ballot.

“When an initiative gets on the ballot, it needs to have overwhelming support from the public,” he said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, spoke out against the bill as it moved through the legislature.

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

The lawsuit against Act 236 was filed in March 2023 and is ongoing. Attorney David Couch brought the suit, arguing the law is “clearly unconstitutional.” He is representing the League of Women Voters and Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, in the suit. The League of Women Voters regularly helps with signature collection. Sen. King says his objection to the law comes from his Republican values.

“I felt like it was right to step up,” he said. “The idea that Republicans are trying to make it harder to challenge what their government does—do you remember Lexington and Concord?”

Lexington and Concord was the first battles of the American Revolution.

Assistant Attorney General Justin Brascher, the attorney representing the State of Arkansas in the suit, called on a judge to dismiss the lawsuit Monday. He said the League of Women Voters and Sen. King don't have standing to bring the lawsuit.

“Are we going to offer standing to every registered voter for a law they don't like?”

Brascher also described the signature-gathering efforts of the League of Women Voters as “nebulous.”

Couch said any voter has the right to bring the lawsuit” since it limits their ability to challenge the government under the constitution.

After the trial, Sen. King reiterated Couch's argument.

“I didn't know my citizenship ended,” he said. “That's news to me.”

Brascher said Act 236 didn't illegally amend the constitution. He pointed to the words “at least” in the law. Gatherers have to collect signatures from “at least” 15 counties. He said this meant the legislature was free to raise the minimum requirements.

“15 counties is a floor,” he said, “not a ceiling.”

Couch said the words “at least” clearly denoted a “minimum geographical requirement.” The law was just trying to clarify that signatures don't need to come from 15 counties exactly.

A judgment on the motion to dismiss is expected from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright on March 8.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.