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Controversy arises over county jail petition signature collection

Pulaski County Jail
An alleged plan to gather signatures for a ballot amendment at a local jail ended after an online controversy.

A signature gathering event from inside the Pulaski County Jail was canceled after public controversy.

The advocacy group For AR Kids planned to gather signatures to support their proposed constitutional amendment, titled The Educational Rights Amendment of 2024. The proposal would require private schools that get tax money to adhere to certain regulations.

The group planned to conduct the jail signature drive for three days from July 1 to 3, but says they were stymied after online controversy.

Nicholas Horton is the founder and CEO of Opportunity Arkansas, a conservative political advocacy group which opposes the education amendment and any attempts to curb school choice policies. In an article on his website, Horton said that the amendment will “end education freedom forever, create massive new welfare programs, and lead to tax increases on Arkansas workers.”

On Wednesday, Horton posted on X that he had “obtained evidence that Left-wing activists intend to infiltrate the Pulaski County Jail.”

Horton would not reveal his source, but Bill Kopsky with For AR Kids pointed out that their group has 1,200 volunteers. He says, as a group, they are “pretty transparent.”

Horton contends that gathering petition signatures in an Arkansas jail would violate state law, specifically Act 312. The law, passed by the legislature in 2013, bans the use of public funds to support or oppose ballot measures.

Kwami Abdul-Bey of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel said the social media posts were “false information.” The Arkansas Public Policy Panel and For AR Kids don't get tax funding, but the Pulaski County Jail does.

“I think, quite clearly, when public resources are being used in a way to support or oppose a ballot measure, I think that raises serious concerns,” Horton told Little Rock Public Radio.

One of his biggest criticisms was equal access to the facility.

“I think public property, that's financed by taxpayers of all political stripes and viewpoints, should be a neutral forum. Both sides should have been able to participate.”

Horton said neither he nor Opportunity Arkansas had any plans to reach out to the jail or do any advocacy events there.

The Arkansas Public Policy Panel has worked in the past to register voters inside correctional facilities, but never before to collect signatures. Kopsky, who also runs the Public Policy Panel, says by collecting signatures from inside a jail, he is helping prisoners exercise their First Amendment rights. Petition signing is protected in the First Amendment.

“There is absolutely no coercion involved,” he said.

Horton didn't have a comment on the First Amendment allegations.

Kopsky believes there is greater value in bringing incarcerated people into the political process, saying “folks in the criminal justice system when they stay connected to their communities have less recidivism.”

Abdul-Bey says, during these drives, volunteers work with the jail ahead of time to make sure they are only interacting with people who can legally vote. He said Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins supports these voter drives.

During the last election cycle, Abdul-Bey says they went to seven different counties as part of their normal practice. He says the experience can be rewarding to help incarcerated people to register to vote. He reflected on the experience of meeting one 20-year-old convicted of a misdemeanor.

“It was his first time voting when he was in jail,” he said.

Abdul-Bey said many prisoners don't know they may still have the right to vote.

Arkansas law allows people convicted of misdemeanors to vote. They also are allowed to vote if they have fully completed their sentence, and probation and paid their fines.

Horton said he is not opposed to voter registration drives in prisons. He says a ballot measure is a “very different thing.”

The deadline to collect signatures is July 5. In Arkansas, canvassers have a “cure period.” If they collect over 75% of signatures by the required amount of time, they get 30 extra days to gather signatures. That adds up to over 67,000 signatures needed before the cure period.

Horton says the jail signature gathering initiative could have been designed to “extend the clock.” Kopsky scoffed at this notion.

“That doesn't even make sense,” he said. “How would we accomplish that?”

He said there is no way they would have collected enough signatures from inside a jail to extend a deadline. He estimated the drive would have only yielded a “couple dozen” signatures.

Kopsky and Abdul-Bey say the plan to gather signatures in the jail was scrapped by Sheriff Eric Higgins after Horton's social media posts. They both say they plan to register people to vote from jail later in the year.

Higgins did not respond to Little Rock Public Radio's request for comment.

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