Supporters of a proposal that would alter the way Arkansas' voting districts are drawn turned to the federal courts Wednesday, less than a week after the state's highest court barred the proposal from appearing on the November ballot.
The proposal's sponsor, Arkansas Voters First, collected more than 144,000 signatures in a petitioning effort to get the proposed constitutional amendment before voters in November. The group needed about 89,000 to qualify.
But the Arkansas Supreme Court, siding with arguments by Secretary of State John Thurston, disqualified the proposal last week in a 6-1 decision. The high court agreed with Thurston that the voters group failed to properly certify that its paid canvassers were qualified to collect signatures.
Voters First attested to state regulators that it had "acquired" criminal background checks, while Thurston countered the group needed to certify those canvassers had "passed" those checks. He refused to begin the verification process needed to certify that Voters First had collected enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
On Wednesday, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Arkansas sued Thurston, a Republican, in federal court in Fayetteville to challenge the legality of the background-check provision found in Arkansas 7-9-601 of the state Elections Code. The League is also asking U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks to order Thurston to begin the verification process immediately.
The suit describes the law as "an inartfully drafted Arkansas statutory provision that requires a petition sponsor to either submit a false statement to [the Secretary of State] or have its ... petitions rejected in their entirety."
In the lawsuit, the group's lawyers say some of what the law requires is impossible to provide -- a federal criminal record search by the Arkansas State Police and the certification that each canvasser has "passed" the state police background search.
The agencies involved in the background check, the state police and the Arkansas Crime Information Center, do not assign a passing or failing grade to those background reviews, and the law does not specifically state what would constitute passing or failing anyway, the suit states.
"In reality, a criminal record search is not something that can be 'passed' and even if it were, that statutory provision does not explain what would constitute a passing grade," the suit states.
Further, those agencies do not have the capacity to conduct background checks that would show convictions of federal laws, such as fraud, forgery or identification theft, according to the suit. None of the Voter First canvassers have disqualifying felony convictions, the suit states.
The law puts people such as the plaintiff in an unconstitutional conundrum: Either submit a false statement about passing background checks, or have their amendments disqualified by the secretary of state, according to the suit.
Forcing initiative supporters to submit a false statement to election authorities to get the secretary of state to begin the validation process violates the rights of the proposal's supporters because the requirement does nothing to further the protection of the petition process, the suit states.
"Unless the false statement requirement as it was applied to [Arkansas Voters First] by [Thurston] with respect to the Petitions is struck down as unconstitutional, approximately 150,000 Arkansans' signatures will not proceed to verification analysis by [Thurston], thus eliminating Plaintiffs' ability to make the matter the focus of statewide discussion and voters' constitutional right to express their association or not on the ballot initiative," the suit states.
Lawyers for the League of Women Voters of Arkansas are further asking the judge for an expedited ruling that would require Thurston to respond to the lawsuit within a week then hold oral arguments Sept. 14.
"The Arkansas Supreme Court's decision to invalidate the signatures of 150,000 voters on a hyper technical requirement blatantly disregards voters' First Amendment rights," said Deborah Turner, board president for the League of Women Voters of the United States, said in a news release announcing the litigation. "The voices of Arkansas voters deserve to be honored -- the Secretary of State must count the signatures of his constituents, thereby honoring the oath of office he took to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of Arkansas."
The plaintiff is Bonnie Heather Miller, a League of Women Voters member and head of Arkansas Voters First. She is being represented by Little Rock civil-rights attorney David Couch and Christopher Lamar from the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that works to reduce the influence of money in politics and increased access to voting.
The Voters First proposal would create a nine-member citizen commission to draw congressional and legislative districts with instructions that the maps do not favor or disadvantage any political party -- a process known as gerrymandering.
Currently, the legislature establishes the state's four congressional districts while a committee of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general sets the districts for the state House and Senate. New districts are established every 10 years after the census.