A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arkansas judge will allow amended complaint in challenge to new ballot petition law

A canvasser in Ohio discusses a ballot initiative to raise the vote threshold to enact new citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.
Graham Stokes
Ohio Capital Journal
A canvasser in Ohio discusses a ballot initiative to raise the vote threshold to enact new citizen-initiated constitutional amendments.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A Central Arkansas judge is allowing the group challenging Arkansas’ new ballot petition law to amend its complaint before he decides whether to grant the attorney general’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright wrote in an order this week that he had concerns about whether a sitting state senator and the League of Women Voters of Arkansas had legal standing to bring a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new state law that raises the number of counties where ballot initiative groups must gather signatures from 15 to 50.

State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, doesn’t enjoy any special privileges in the case as a state lawmaker, Wright wrote.

“Plaintiff League of Women Voters comes somewhat closer to chinning the bar on proving standing, as the record shows that they have been involved in voter initiatives in the past and may be in the future, including the upcoming November 2024 election,” Wright wrote. “Nonetheless, their argument regarding their standing also falls short. Plaintiffs’ counsel stated for the record that the League is currently involved in two ballot initiatives that would be affected by Act 236, but that fact is not pled in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.”

Wright gave the League five days to amend its complaint to address the standing issue.

David Couch, the League’s attorney in the case, filed an amended complaint this week, noting that the League of Women Voters is a member of the Arkansas Period Poverty Project ballot question committee, which is supporting a proposed initiated act to exempt feminine hygiene products and diapers from state sales tax.

“That should resolve his issues with standing, then it will squarely teed up for: Is it constitutional or not?” Couch said.

The AG’s office has asked Wright to dismiss the case over the standing issue and due to the principle of sovereign immunity, which prohibits lawsuits against the state.

Wright said sovereign immunity didn’t apply in this case because it deals with the constitutionality of legislation.

Wright in a hearing last month said he planned to rule on the attorney general’s motion to dismiss before deciding whether to block the new law from taking effect.

His decision is almost certainly going to be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and it could have major implications for which ballot proposals make it to Election Day in November.

Those efforts include the Period Poverty Project’s proposal and initiatives on medical marijuana, public education, government transparency, abortion and absentee voting.

The lawsuit targets Act 236 of 2023, the state Legislature’s most recent attempt to make it more difficult to qualify a proposed constitutional amendment, initiated act or referendum for the ballot.

Act 236 requires canvassers to gather signatures from half the number of registered voters who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election in at least 50 counties. That’s an increase from the at-least 15-county requirement in Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution.

The law also removed the so-called “cure” period, which allowed ballot efforts that got close but fell short of the required number of signatures additional time to collect more petitions.

Proponents of the bill said it would ensure rural Arkansas has a voice in the petition process and protect the Constitution from out-of-state interests.

King and the League of Women Voters, though, argue Act 236 places additional restrictions on the initiative process, directly contradicting Article 5 of the state Constitution.

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.