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story.lead_photo.caption This 2016 image released by the Maine Office of Secretary of State shows a sample ranked-choice ballot, designed to avoid runoffs to rank their choices for offices. The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, voted 5-1 not to certify the ballot title for a proposed amendment that would create ranked-choice voting for most state offices. (AP / Maine Office of Secretary of State )

The state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday approved the ballot title and popular name for a proposed constitutional amendment that would change who redraws the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts.

But the board voted 5-1 not to certify the ballot title for a proposed amendment that would create ranked-choice voting for most state offices.

Board members Sharon Brooks, William Luther, Charles Roberts and James Sharp, all appointed by Republican officials, and board member Bilenda Harris-Ritter, who is the Republican Party's designee, voted to find that the proposed ballot title's language is misleading.

Board member James Harmon Smith, who is the Democratic Party's designee on the board, dissented.

The board also decided to delay a decision until July 29 on the ballot title and popular name for a proposed amendment that would authorize 16 more casinos in Arkansas.

[RELATED » Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

Act 376 of 2019 shifted the responsibility of certifying a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot title from the attorney general to the Board of Election Commissioners.

Certification of the ballot title and popular name is one of the two requirements under state law for a proposal to get on the general election ballot.

The other requirement is for the secretary of state to certify that the sponsor has submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on petitions.

APPEAL PROMISED

Stephanie Matthews, campaign manager for the Open Primaries Arkansas committee that promotes the ranked-choice voting amendment, said the committee plans to appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court the board's ruling that the proposal's title is misleading.

"I think this whole issue is 100,000 to 1," she said after Wednesday's meeting.

"There are 100,000 Arkansas voters who [signed the proposal's petitions] and wanted open primaries and [Secretary of State] John Thurston will stop at nothing to get this kicked off the ballot because he knows when voters have their say, open primaries will pass."

Thurston spokesman Kevin Niehaus declined to respond to Matthews' remarks.

The Arkansas Voters First committee is promoting the redistricting proposal.

On July 14, Thurston announced that because of an error regarding criminal background checks of the people who circulated petitions, the redistricting, ranked-choice voting and casino amendments can't qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot.

The Open Primaries Arkansas and the Arkansas Voters First committees on Friday asked the Supreme Court to compel Thurston to begin counting the signatures on the petitions they submitted.

The two committees also asked the state's high court to order Thurston to provide them with more time -- at least 30 days -- to collect more signatures.

Taylor Riddle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. ballot committee that is promoting the casino amendment, said Wednesday that the committee plans to challenge Thurston's ruling on the casino proposal to the Supreme Court.

DECISION APPLAUDED

After the board's actions Wednesday, Jonelle Fulmer, co-chairwoman of the Arkansans for Transparency committee that opposes both the redistricting and ranked-choice voting amendments, said Wednesday, "We applaud the state Board of Election Commissioners' decision not to certify the Open Primaries (a.k.a., Ranked Choice) amendment for the November ballot.

"While we fully expect an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, this decision underscores the confusing and deceptive nature by which this ballot title was written," said Fulmer, who is the state's Republican national committeewoman.

"As for the decision to certify the redistricting amendment, we are committed to using every available resource under the law to challenge this veiled attempt by the same out-of-state group to fundamentally change the laws that have governed redistricting in our state for decades," Fulmer said.

PROPOSALS EXPLAINED

The Arkansas Voters First's proposed redistricting amendment would shift the authority for redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts from the state Board of Apportionment -- comprising the governor, attorney general and secretary of state -- to a nine-member independent commission comprising three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

The proposal also would shift authority for redrawing the boundaries of the congressional districts from the Legislature to the new commission. The boundaries of legislative and congressional districts are redrawn once a decade, after the U.S. census.

Nell Matthews of Little Rock, representing the League for Women Voters in Pulaski County, and Brett Kincaid, who manages the Arkansas Voters First committee, urged the elections board to certify the popular name and ballot title for the proposed amendment, citing the proposal's clear language and public support.

"I don't care which party is in power," Nell Matthews said. "I want to see the voters get to pick the politicians and not the politicians pick the voters."

Under the Open Primaries Arkansas committee's ranked-choice proposal, candidates for Congress, the General Assembly and constitutional offices would run in an open primary against other candidates for those offices regardless of party.

In each race, the four candidates with the most votes in the open primary would then advance to the general election. In the general election, voters would then rank their preferred candidates one through four. If no candidate wins an outright majority in that election, then the candidate with the fewest voters would be eliminated and those voters' second and third choices would be added to the remaining candidates' tallies until someone obtained the majority threshold.

John Krebs of Conway, representing the Faulkner County chapter of the League of Women Voters, and Stephanie Matthews, of Open Primaries Arkansas, urged the election commissioners to certify the ballot title and popular name of the election proposal. They cited its public support.

"We believe the language is very clear in what they are getting when they vote for this," Stephanie Matthews said.

But Harris-Ritter told fellow board members that the term "open primary" is misleading in itself in the proposed language because the state has an open primary now.

She said she is also concerned that the proposed language for the ballot title doesn't state that "political parties are basically left out," or counties will need new voting machines and that would be a significant expense.

"I think that a reasonable voter going into booth, looking at this, is going to want to know if it is going to raise their taxes," said Harris-Ritter.

CASINO PROPOSAL

The Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc.'s proposal would authorize 16 casinos besides the four casinos allowed under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution. The state now has full-fledged casinos in Hot Springs and West Memphis and another casino is under construction in Pine Bluff. The Arkansas Racing Commission hasn't awarded a casino license for Pope County yet.

Attorney Steve Lancaster, representing the Protect Arkansas Communities committee, which opposes the casino proposal, told the board that the amendment's ballot title and popular name are misleading.

The proposed amendment creates perpetual licenses for limited liability companies that are identified in this amendment, he said.

But attorney Randy Bynum, representing Arkansas Wins in 2020, told the board that the Arkansas Racing Commission has the power to issue regulations and the Legislature has the right to make laws under the proposed amendment, and it's not true that the casinos could never lose their licenses.

Attorney Todd Wooten, representing Arkansas Wins in 2o2o, told the board that "we have significant due process and constitutional issues with the process the board is pursuing," and suggested the board delay action to fully vet his letter to commissioners dated Wednesday. The board agreed to meet July 29 to consider the proposed popular name and ballot title.

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