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FAYETTEVILLE -- U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes questioned Tuesday whether the state's in-person requirement for signing a petition to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot was an unreasonable restriction on free-speech rights.

Holmes made his comments during a hearing in a case that could decide whether Arkansas' process of drawing legislative and congressional district boundary lines will go to voters this year for a major change.

Independent candidates also filed a lawsuit April 29 challenging their deadline to submit petitions to be listed on the Nov. 3 ballot. That deadline was May 1. U.S. Senate candidate Dan Whitfield of Bella Vista and state House candidate Gary Fults of Hensley filed the suit against Secretary of State John Thurston in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. A hearing in that case is set for May 27.

The judge assured the parties in the suit that he would rule without any needless delay, but he didn't indicate when. He conducted the hourlong hearing by videoconference because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Electronic signature is a widely accepted practice in legal proceedings, Holmes noted. William Bird, attorney for the state in this case, argued the requirement was valid and deemed necessary by the state to prevent fraud.

The nonprofit group Arkansas Voters First wants a constitutional amendment to require an independent commission to draw district boundaries. Current law vests that power in three of the state's constitutional officers for legislative districts and in the state Legislature for congressional boundaries. Having those boundaries set by elected officials leaves the process open to manipulation of borders for partisan advantage, the group argues.

Those districts are redrawn every 10 years, after each U.S. census. The 10-year interval between census-takings is prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. A census is underway now, with the results scheduled to be complete by Dec. 31. Redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries after the census is also prescribed by law. There will be no chance to change the redistricting process in time to have an effect before 2030 if the measure isn't on the ballot this year, the plaintiffs argue.

State law requires that petitions to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November's general election have 89,151 signatures of registered voters, a number set by calculating 10% of the votes in the previous gubernatorial election. The law also requires that signatures come from at least 15 of the state's 75 counties.

Gathering petition signatures statewide is almost impossible during a pandemic, according to the lawsuit that Arkansas Voters First filed April 22 in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville. The suit also asks the court to allow electronic petition signatures.

State outbreak-control measures -- such as bans on large gatherings -- along with petition requirements banning electronic signatures make it impossible to gather enough signatures, violating the amendment proponents' rights, the lawsuit argues.

The suit asks the court to extend to September the July 3 state deadline for submitting petitions to get the measure certified for the ballot.

Holmes noted that the group waited until March, when the census process was already underway, to begin its petition drive. He questioned whether the plaintiffs gave themselves enough time to successfully complete a petition drive even if the pandemic had not hit.

"If this is an opportunity that only comes every 10 years, why did you wait until March?" he asked.

Ruth Greenwood, attorney for the plaintiffs, replied that other petition measures in recent years gathered more than enough signatures in a similar time frame.

"We started early by Arkansas standards," she said.

Metro on 05/20/2020

Print Headline: Judge hears sides in suit over ballot-measure rule

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