As the number of coronavirus cases in the state continues to rise, those involved with political petitions are finding it difficult to gather signatures.
According to the 2020 Initiatives and Referenda handbook from the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, a total of 89,151 signatures are needed for a petition proposing a constitutional amendment. Furthermore, said signatures must come from 15 counties in Arkansas and be completely turned in by July 3.
Melissa Fults is the executive director of Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, the group behind the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment, which would legalize recreational marijuana in the state. With 15,000 signatures already gathered, she says collection during the coronavirus pandemic has been slower, but a recent donation of $40,000 from Little Rock NORML should help with the hiring of canvassers.
"We don’t have the signatures we would like to have, but we still have plenty of time. With us being able to hire canvassers, we still have plenty of time to get signatures, if this coronavirus will go away," Fults said.
According to Fults, a lot of volunteers are staying home due to the virus, with some staying home because they already have existing health issues.
"We have told them, if you have underlying conditions, don’t get out there. But if you’re healthy and you take precautions and you want to get out there, that’s fine. But if you want to wait until the 1st of May, we understand completely and we support you," Fults said.
Even with willing canvassers, where to collect signatures is also challenge due to the cancellation of events and the state urging people to self-isolate. Carl Wilkins is a paid canvasser and is gathering signatures for the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment. He says the closures are an obstacle.
"Many places that are fair game for petitioners like revenue departments, like libraries, they’re closing them every day. And it’s putting a hurt on us. What that leaves are private businesses, which can, of course, ask you to leave and you have to leave. So that really really puts a hurt on our business when they do that," Wilkins said.
Since the signatures must be collected face-to-face, another method Fults says they are willing to try is to let the public know where they are going to be, in order to collect the needed signatures.
"We are going to try to see if we can send out letters in communities and tell them ‘We will be here on this day. We will be going door-to-door. Our canvassers have been checked for health. They will take every precaution, they will have hand sanitizer," Fults said.
Wilkins says going door-to-door for signatures isn’t his preference.
"A lot of people are going to be timid though, because of the virus. Then again, you don’t know if you’re knocking on the door of an infected person so you have to be careful there too," Wilkins said.
With the July 3 deadline a little more than three months away, Wilkins thinks one way to help with signature collections would be for the state to delay the due date.
"It’s because of them that we’re going to be delayed, so I think it’s appropriate that they grant us more time to do this," Wilkins said.
However, the state Secretary of State’s office is unlikely to grant more time. Chris Powell, press secretary for the Secretary of State, says it is a difficult situation for organizations trying to collect signatures. However, he says the Secretary of State’s office does not have the authority to change the due date.
"Those deadlines are pretty set in state law for the election process. Even the existing process is a pretty tight timeline for the getting everything solidified for the ballot," Powell said.
Since the election processes are codified in state law, Powell says it would take action from the state legislature to change anything. Another issue Powell says that has emerged due to the coronavirus is the holding of runoff elections.
"Again we don’t have authority to really cancel an election either, so we’re sort of trying to navigate this as best as possible, but we still have to adhere to our legal obligations," Powell said.
Currently, three ballots initiatives, passed by the 2019 state legislature, are set to appear on the November ballot. One of those initiatives changes the petition process itself. According to the House Joint Resolution, the initiative would raise the number of required counties where signatures must come from 15 to 45. It also changes the deadline for signature submission from four months before an election to January 15.
Fults says if voters pass that amendment come November, it will be tougher for petitioners to get their initiatives on the ballot.
"It will make it virtually impossible to get a petition on the ballot and that’s their goal. They do not want the people to have a voice. They want only their laws to be the law. They don’t want or care what the people say," Fults said.
With the Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment, Fults says as long as their team can begin canvassing again by May 1, they should be in good shape.