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Suit filed over petition-limiting law

Complaint claims restrictions for canvassers collecting signatures pose burden by Dale Ellis | May 28, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

Thursday marked the third day in a row that legislation passed earlier this year by the Arkansas General Assembly has been challenged in U.S. District Court in Little Rock by opponents seeking to block enforcement of those laws.

Thursday afternoon, supporters of term limits for Arkansas legislative offices filed a lawsuit in the court seeking to overturn a law passed in the recent regular session that places restrictions on the state's petition process that opponents say violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed a lawsuit on behalf of four families of transgender children and their doctors seeking to block implementation of a law prohibiting gender affirming medical treatment for young people.

On Wednesday, ACLU of Arkansas filed a second lawsuit, this one to block a near total ban on abortion services and subjecting providers who perform those services to criminal penalties including prison time and substantial fines. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of Little Rock Family Planning Services, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Dr. Janet Cathey.

Thursday's lawsuit, which named Secretary of State John Thurston as the lone defendant, seeks to block enforcement of Act 915 of 2021, which became law immediately upon passage. Among other things objected to in the complaint, the law requires paid canvassers for ballot initiatives to be Arkansas residents and prohibits them from being paid per signature.

It also requires a criminal background check to be performed on each paid canvasser at the sponsor's expense but does not specify who should perform the background check and places the ultimate burden of ensuring a canvasser does not have a disqualifying offense on the sponsor. In addition, the law requires that paid canvassers sign a statement under oath that they have never pleaded or been found guilty of a disqualifying offense and lists 17 specific crimes or classifications of crimes including any felony offense, theft, trespassing, fraud or election law violation among those.

The legislation, filed as Senate Bill 614, was sponsored by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and was co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne.

Plaintiffs in the case are Arkansas Term Limits, which is based in Little Rock; Liberty Initiative Fund of Woodbridge, Va.; U.S. Term Limits of Washington, D.C.; ACCELEVATE 2020 LLC of Dripping Springs, Texas; Timothy Jacob of Little Rock; Lawrence Cook of North Little Rock; and Trenton Pool of Dripping Springs, Texas.

According to the complaint, Jacob is chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, Cook is its treasurer, and Pool is the chairman and sole member of ACCELEVATE 2020, a professional petition circulating firm.

In a news release from Arkansas Term Limits, Jacob said the law puts restrictions in place that make it harder for petition drives to be successful, increasing the likelihood that such citizen-led efforts -- including his effort to implement term limits of six years in the House, eight years in the Senate, or 10 years combined in both chambers -- will fail.

"Legislators have enacted unconstitutional hurdles to block our petition for stricter term limits, something voters strongly favor but politicians oppose," Jacob said in the release. "By challenging the legislature's attack on our right to petition, we begin the process of restoring both term limits and this state's cherished citizen initiative process."

The release said that residency requirements limits the pool of available petitioners and said that similar residency requirement have been overturned in five of the nation's federal circuits.

"For the last decade, the legislature has repeatedly legislated to give themselves a career in office and to block citizens from having an honest vote on term limits," Jacob said in the release.

On Thursday, Davis told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that rather than limit citizen participation, her intent was to ensure that Arkansans lead the petition process and to prevent out-of-state interests and money from influencing the process.

"We have a path that allows Arkansas citizens to get something on the ballot," Davis said. "That is supposed to be grassroots led, something that the citizens truly want but what we're finding is that people are coming in from out of state with out-of-state money and spending millions on advertising to promote something the citizens don't necessarily want."

But, while Davis said her desire is to get out-of-state money and influence out of citizen-led petition drives, she stopped short of endorsing an outright ban on out-of-state money at all levels of state politics.

"That's a very broad and very complicated issue and to me it seemed important to be specific with collecting signatures to actually change our state constitution," she said. "That's what I wanted to focus on."

Davis said that allowing canvassers to be paid by the number of signatures they collect was an invitation to fraud, saying that by the time it would be discovered a portion of the signatures collected were invalid, the canvasser would have already been paid.

"They can still be paid, but just at an hourly wage or however the person wants to pay them," she said. Davis did not cite any specific instances of fraud but said there were a number of cases in which it had happened.

The complaint filed Thursday said provisions of Arkansas code regulating citizen-led petitions constitute violations of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and claims the financial burdens placed on the plaintiffs would force them to use volunteer canvassers, which would reduce the pool of available canvassers. It asks that numerous sections of Arkansas law related to petition drives be declared unconstitutional and a permanent injunction be granted to prevent enforcement.

Calls to Thurston's office seeking comment regarding the lawsuit were not returned.

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