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The Arkansas secretary of state's office spent about five hours Tuesday trying to justify -- at the request of a federal appellate court -- the need for a March 1 deadline for independent candidates in Arkansas to submit petitions seeking access to general-election ballots.

The deadline had been May 1 until state lawmakers moved it up in 2013, citing a need for more time for elections officials to review signatures while juggling other deadlines and complying with federal election laws.

But in a 2014 lawsuit, three potential independent candidates for office sued the state in federal court, saying the earlier deadline unfairly shortens their signature-collection time and forces them to collect signatures in colder weather. They alleged that the real driving force behind the change was a desire by established political parties to keep them from getting a foothold within the Arkansas electorate.

While independent candidates must gather signatures, usually a number equal to 3 percent of registered voters, Democratic and Republican candidates pay a filing fee to the state party to file for state or federal office. The petition process starts 90 days before the filing period.

In August 2015, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. dismissed the lawsuit. He said that while the candidates' arguments had merit, Secretary of State Mark Martin had provided a compelling reason for the moved-up deadline and had shown that the restrictions of Act 1356 of 2013 were narrowly tailored to advance the state's interests in timely certifying candidates and petitions.

But Mark Moore of Pea Ridge in Benton County, a would-be independent candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014 who says he wants to be on the 2018 ballot for the same position, appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. The other two would-be candidates in 2014 didn't pursue the effort.

On April 26 of this year, a three-judge panel reversed Moody's grant of summary judgment to the state, with U.S. Circuit Judges Roger Wollman of Sioux Falls, S.D. and Duane Benton of Kansas City, Mo., saying the secretary of state hadn't adequately justified the need for a March 1 deadline for independent candidates, and directed Moody to conduct a more thorough hearing before reconsidering the issue.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith of Little Rock said in a dissent that he believed the case should have been decided in the plaintiffs' favor, without the need for an additional hearing.

In an effort Tuesday to answer questions raised by the 8th Circuit panel, Deputy Secretary of State A.J. Kelly, who is legal counsel for Martin, presented about four hours' worth of testimony from the office's election coordinator, Josh Bridges.

Bridges confirmed numerous deadlines that the office enforces in its effort to manage other responsibilities, meet federal requirements and dovetail with the time-restricted actions of county clerks, who certify candidates for district offices. The secretary of state certifies candidates for national and statewide offices.

Bridges acknowledged a frenzy of deadlines for three types of signature petitions the office administers: for independent candidates; statewide initiatives, such as marijuana legalization; and for nonpartisan races.

He testified that when the work is too much for the 12 staff members, the office sometimes hires temporary workers to verify petitions, but that some of the work cannot be done by temporary workers, as the 8th Circuit suggested, because of the amount of training required. He said that an already-tight schedule can become overwhelming when a petition is entangled in litigation.

But under cross-examination by attorney James Linger of Tulsa, whom, alongside attorney Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, represents Moore, Bridges conceded that "we would get the job done, however we needed to do it."

Linger asked the judge to declare the March 1 deadline unconstitutional and prevent the state from enforcing it. He said after the hearing that litigation regarding petition deadlines for independent and third-party candidates in Arkansas has gone on for decades in Arkansas, and Moore said he wishes the state would simply allow independent candidates to pay a fee to obtain ballot access.

Moody said he hopes to issue a written ruling by Jan. 2.

Metro on 12/13/2017

Print Headline: In court, state re-defends petitions-to-run deadline

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