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2 measures kicked off state ballot

by John Moritz | August 28, 2020 at 7:44 a.m.
The Arkansas State Supreme Court building is shown in this file photo.

The Arkansas Supreme Court yanked a pair of proposed changes to the state constitution from the Nov. 3 general election ballot Thursday, halting attempts to enact ranked-choice voting and a new method for drawing legislative and congressional districts.

A 6-1 majority disqualified both measures on technical grounds, finding fault with the wording that the groups behind the measures used to certify that their paid canvassers met all the requirements to collect signatures.

The groups, Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas, wrote in submissions to the secretary of state's office that they "acquired " criminal background checks for each of their canvassers.

Secretary of State John Thurston's office, however, said the groups needed to certify that the canvassers "passed" the background checks.

Justice Robin Wynne, writing for the court's majority, agreed with the secretary of state's office and dismissed a lawsuit by the ballot measure groups seeking to reverse Thurston's decision.

"Simply acquiring or obtaining a background check is not sufficient under the plain language of the statute," Wynne wrote. "The results of the background checks are not required to be filed with the Secretary of State, and the certification is the only assurance the public receives that the paid canvassers 'passed' background checks."

Wynne's opinion was joined by Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Courtney Hudson, Rhonda Wood, Shawn Womack and Karen Baker.

In a dissent, Justice Josephine Hart wrote that the ruling "disenfranchised more than 90,000 citizens" who signed petitions for both measures. The law requiring canvassers to pass background checks is unconstitutional, she added.

Immediately after Thursday's ruling, the secretary of state's office informed county election officials that the proposals -- previously certified as Issues 4 and 5 for the November ballot -- had been invalidated and do not need to appear on the ballots that they have printed for their areas.

Bonnie Miller, the campaign chairwoman of Arkansas Voters First, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of both proposals, called the decision "unexpected" and a significant setback, especially for those who have been advocating for redistricting changes.

Redistricting -- or the process of drawing new state legislative and congressional district boundaries every 10 years following the U.S. census -- is a duty assigned to the Legislature, which draws congressional maps, and a commission comprising the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, which draws state legislative maps.

The constitutional amendment proposed by Arkansas Voters First, if it had been approved by voters, would have put both redistricting duties in the hands of a new commission made up of members of the Republican and Democratic parties just in time for a new round of redistricting in 2021.

Miller said the court's decision would probably set back proponents of redistricting changes in Arkansas at least another decade, until the next census is completed in 2030 and another round of redistricting follows.

"We're not going to have an independent commission to redraw the lines," Miller said Thursday. "We're going to have politicians and lobbyists continue to draw our maps, and those maps don't benefit voters."

The other proposal would have switched the state's primary elections, in which candidates vie for their party's nomination, to a system in which partisan candidates compete against one another in the same primary and then the top four advance to a general election to be decided by ranked-choice voting.

Both proposed amendments were drafted in consultation with David Couch, an Arkansas attorney who is a prolific sponsor of ballot initiatives.

Couch, who backed the successful 2016 effort to legalize medical marijuana, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Arkansas Republicans, meanwhile, praised the court's defeat of both measures, which they depicted as veiled efforts to weaken GOP control of the state.

"Out of state billionaires and the Democratic Party of Arkansas have tried to buy their way to intentionally deceitful ballot measures designed to fool voters," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement. "They would have made Arkansas the home of the most ridiculous California style jungle primary, ranked choice voting, and redistricting measures in the nation. Thankfully, this thin facade has been stopped by the Supreme Court of Arkansas, as it would have been defeated at the ballot box."

Both Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas received the bulk of their funding from the Action Now Initiative, a political organization founded by Laura and John Arnold of Texas.

After gaining control of both chambers of the Legislature, the state's seven constitutional offices and the six congressional offices over the past decade, Republicans are poised to have complete control over the redistricting process in Arkansas for the first time in more than a century.

A group formed to oppose both ballot measures in the event they were left on the ballot, Arkansans for Transparency, received the bulk of its funding from Republican-aligned groups and the Rockefeller family, according to filings with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who had given $15,000 to the effort to oppose the ballot measures from his campaign and political action committee, said the election proposal would have created the "most radical election system" in the nation.

"Now some states, like Louisiana and California, have jungle primaries," Cotton said. "Some states, like Maine, have ranked-choice voting, but no state has both of them."

In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the senator also took aim at the measure to create a new redistricting commission, which he said "would take power away from Arkansans to decide how they want to draw their congressional districts and their legislative districts. Under our current law, elected officials have a chance to do it, and if voters don't like it, then they can vote them out."

Efforts to take redistricting control away from politicians have ramped up in the past decade, largely in response to GOP-led gerrymanders of maps in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states use unelected commissions to draw congressional maps, while 10 do so for state legislative maps.

In July, the state Board of Election Commissioners voted to approve the wording of the proposed amendment to form a new redistricting commission, while simultaneously rejecting the ranked-choice voting proposal as misleading.

That latter decision was also appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which declared the issue moot Thursday after the measure was disqualified on other grounds.

Stephanie Matthews, the campaign manager of Open Primaries Arkansas, said Thursday that the group was exploring any possible legal options.

"More than 150,000 voters -- Republicans, Democrats and Independents -- signed the petition supporting Issue 5 from Open Primaries Arkansas to take the power away from the extreme wings of both parties and to give voters more choices in November," Matthews said in a statement.

Both groups needed 89,151 valid signatures to qualify their measures for the ballot. However, because their signatures were collected by paid canvassers whom the court determined did not meet the state's qualifications, the signatures they submitted to the state were deemed insufficient.

Information for this article was contributed by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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