A voter’s signature on a petition attempting to create a new law should be treated with the same sanctity as a vote, an advocate for citizen-initiated legislation told a Pulaski County circuit judge Friday.
Judge Mary McGowan is preparing to decide whether new regulations illegally infringe on Arkansas’ initiative and referendum procedure, a right guaranteed by the Arkansas and U.S. constitutions.
The judge concluded a two-day hearing Friday over whether she should block the law ahead of a trial to decide its legality by setting a Dec. 3 deadline to receive written arguments from the sides. McGowan did not say when she would decide whether to impose a temporary injunction.
A lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging Act 1413 of 2013, which became law in April. The measure’s opponents claim its regulations will impede Arkansans from using their right to bypass the Legislature to enact or cancel laws and constitutional amendments through a petition process. A successful petition, based on the number of voter signatures collected, can place a proposed law or amendment on the ballot.
The regulations’ defenders, the secretary of state and attorney general, say the General Assembly intended the act to reduce fraud, forgery and deceit in the signature-gathering process. The law’s drafters cited three initiative efforts last year they say showed widespread instances of apparent fraud, forgery, and false statements in the signature-gathering process. The regulations will impose more accountability on petition sponsors and the canvassers who collect signatures for them, lawyers for the constitutional officers told the judge.
Testifying as an expert for the plaintiffs, Paul Jacobs of Virginia, president of Citizens in Charge and Citizens in Charge Foundation, advocacy groups whose goal is protecting the right of initiative and referendum, told the judge that the Amendment 7 guarantee in the Arkansas Constitution is one of the best in the country. Only 26 states recognize that initiative and referendum right in some form, and Act 1413 will have a “serious negative impact” on efforts by people to enact laws, he told the judge.
“It is the best, most protective constitutional amendment for initiative and referendum … especially for protecting the process from legislative assault,” Jacobs said. “The Legislature doesn’t want to empower people to go around them. They want to tamp that down.”
He testified over the objection of Assistant Attorney General Patrick Hollingsworth, who questioned Jacobs’ expertise as a witness because Jacobs is not a lawyer and has completed no academic studies of the initiative laws.
When Jacobs, questioned by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bettina Brownstein with the ACLU, told the judge he had heard that horse-race track Oaklawn Park and dog-race track Southland Park had pushed the legislation to protect their gambling interests and fend off out-of-state efforts to use the initiative process to establish casino gambling in the state, Hollingsworth denounced that accusation as “rank hearsay.”
Raised in Arkansas, with family still in the state, Jacobs said he has a particular interest in the new regulations, warning the judge that they make it easier for “perfectly valid signatures to be thrown in the trash,” when the previous law gave initiative organizers the opportunity to correct mistakes to make sure those names were counted.
Requirements that canvassers register where they live with the secretary of state’s office before they begin working will open them to the possibility of being harassed in their homes during the signature-gathering effort, particularly when they are promoting hot-button issues, Jacobs said. He told the judge he has heard complaints that canvassers who petitioned for a tax on natural gas to fund road repairs last year were “stalked” at times by opponents. Before the law changed, canvassers weren’t required to file their home addresses until after the collection was completed, he told the judge.
Jennifer Pierce, an Occupy Little Rock member and a founder of Arkansas Initiative for Marriage Equality, which wants to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot to legalize same-sex marriage, testified she witnessed gas tax opponents trying to intimidate tax supporters as they tried to collect signatures. Pierce said she was subjected to intimidation by the tax foes while she tried to collect signatures for a campaign-finance change petition. She said they left her alone once they realized she wasn’t involved in the tax issue.
Pierce, who also is a Bryant teacher, said she worried about having to disclose her home address while canvassing for signatures. She also objected to a regulation that bars canvassers from helping signers fill out address and birth date information on the petition. She testified that signers frequently asked the canvasser to write that for them. Some of them were holding packages or children, Pierce said, while others might have literacy issues.