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LEARNS ballot effort saw myriad obstacles

by Neal Earley | August 27, 2023 at 4:34 a.m.
Steve Grappe fills out paperwork at the secretary of state’s office in the Riverdale area of Little Rock in July after delivering boxes of signatures in support of a petition to put the LEARNS act on the ballot. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Five days earlier, the Arkansas secretary of state had confirmed that a campaign to put Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education overhaul on the ballot had come up short.

Still, Steve Grappe, a leader of the campaign, wanted to make sure nothing had been missed. So he enlisted the help of David Couch, a Little Rock attorney and direct democracy guru who authored and successfully pushed for constitutional amendments on medical marijuana and increasing the minimum wage.

What Couch discovered was alarming. He estimated more than 1,000 signatures had been scratched out. But the signatures were not crossed out by the secretary of state’s office, but rather by CAPES’ own volunteers.

The campaign had been concerned about turning in signatures that weren’t verified as being those of registered voters.

“It was a rookie mistake,” Couch said, explaining that the campaign should have left it up to the secretary of state’s office to verify signatures that weren’t obviously bogus.

Beset by road blocks, self-inflicted mistakes and internal fights, the 56-day campaign to put the LEARNS Act to referendum came up short.

But despite the challenges, Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, also known as CAPES, came close to achieving something that no group has done in Arkansas in 29 years, to directly check the Legislature through a referendum.

Grappe, who leads the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ Rural Caucus, said he sensed an opportunity after Sanders signed the LEARNS Act. He held a series of town halls on the law, and the feedback was largely negative.

The law raises the starting teacher pay by $14,000, bans the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, sets new standards for literacy and creates a career-technical diploma for students looking for an alternative pathway to traditional education.

The law also created a program that will allow students to use state dollars to attend a private or home school, something that critics have spent most of their time railing against.

While voucher and educational saving accounts programs that subsidize private education for students are popular among conservative education advocates, Arkansas’ Republican-controlled Legislature had been hesitant to implement a universal school-choice plan before Sanders took office in January.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, citizens have the right to put a law passed in the last legislative session to a vote on the ballot. But to meet the constitution’s requirements, CAPES needed to collect 54,422 signatures — equal to 3% of the votes cast in the most recent election for governor — by July 31.

After the attorney general’s office signed off on the ballot title, CAPES had 56 days to collect the signatures. If it had collected the required number, but some turned out to be invalid, it would have qualified for a 30-day cure period if the valid signatures were equal to 75% of the required number.

“I didn’t think they had a chance in Hell,” Couch said. “This is what is so heartbreaking about it is, if they hadn’t messed up they would have done it.”


The campaign hit an early setback on Easter Sunday, when Grappe and CAPES Chair Veronica McClane suddenly found themselves locked out of their website, Facebook page and Google Drive.

What resulted was a back-and-forth between lawyers and two competing websites that confused voters, volunteers and journalists, Grappe said.

One of CAPES’ directors, Gayle Brock, had locked the others out of the website.

Brock, a network administrator from Black Rock, a town of fewer than 600 just northwest of Jonesboro, said she did it to defend herself and her professional reputation, claiming Grappe and McClane were not heeding her advice to protect volunteers’ personal information.

“Honestly, I don’t really know what happened,” Mc-Clane said. “It was a lot of emotional frustration, and I can understand, but you know, the solution isn’t to just shut everybody out.” In the weeks leading up to the break-up, Grappe said, he and McClane had experienced some tension with Brock, but mostly over the direction of CAPES and not over protecting users’ data.

Brock wanted to enlist a film crew to shoot a public service announcement to promote the campaign, something Grappe and Mc-Clane said they weren’t interested in.

For Brock, what alarmed her was a document she found in the group’s Google Drive: Minutes from a meeting that never took place, purportedly written by her.

Grappe said the document was needed so the group could open a bank account, and the meeting detailed in the minutes covered one of the many hours-long phone conversations that Brock, Grappe and McClane had had. When Brock asked that her name be removed from the document, Grappe agreed, he said.

Brock said the document, along with Grappe and Mc-Clane’s handling of data, made her realize she needed a clean break from CAPES. So, after speaking with an attorney, she left.

“I didn’t want anything to come back on me to say I did anything wrong,” Brock said. “That’s exactly what I needed to do, is to cover Gayle’s ass. And that’s what I did because it could have cost me my job ultimately.” Brock said she asked Grappe and McClane to require volunteers to sign an end-user agreement, a legal document vowing to protect users’ data. But she said the one they came up with fell short of her expectations.

“The end user agreement was just something that was pulled straight from Google,” Brock said. “It was not anything where there was thought that was put into it to make it to where it was going to be solid.” “If she thought that the end user agreement for our data was insufficient, she should have questioned that instead of locking us out of the data,” Grappe said.

Still locked out of their website,, CAPES had to make a new one that they controlled: But the two different websites, one dormant and the other active, confused people, with media and potential volunteers often visiting the inactive website, which is also the top result on Google for “Arkansas CAPES.” CAPES’ former website also now includes a statement saying, “This site and all content are owned and maintained by the Ballot Box Project,” which has become another point of contention.

The Ballot Box Project is a joint venture by Brock and her friend Judson Scanlon, a Democratic political consultant from North Little Rock, meant to be a source of nonpartisan information for voters.

“It was decided we would not be a coalition, we would be a grassroots organization of individuals because we wanted to be as nonpartisan as possible,” McClane said.

Brock, who built and hosted the website, purchased the domain names and created the social media accounts, said she would hand over the website if she would be reimbursed for its cost and if Grappe and McClane signed a nondisclosure agreement. Grappe said he’d pay Brock but not sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Nancy Fancyboy, external communication director for CAPES, said she tried to mediate between Grappe and Brock.

“She felt left out of the loop as a director,” Fancyboy said. “It was just frustration, a lot of frustration I would say.” Brock, despite her falling out with Grappe and McClane, said she was devastated by the failure of the campaign. “I really believed that they would pull it off,” she said.


Most of Grappe’s ire is aimed at Attorney General Tim Griffin, who was responsible for approving the ballot language for CAPES’s petition.

The attorney general’s office twice rejected the proposed ballot language for CAPES’ petition before giving the group the go-ahead to start collecting signatures on June 5, something many of the volunteers within CAPES are bitter about. Under state law, the attorney general must sign off on a petition effort ballot title and popular name, things that will help explain the law to voters before they sign a petition.

Summarizing the 145-page LEARNS Act proved tricky for CAPES, which had ballot language for its petition rejected by the attorney general’s office twice.

Eventually, Griffin signed off on the 16-page ballot title, which he described as the longest in the state’s history.

“We only had [56] days when we should [have] had 90,” said Shay Rafferty, Mc-Clane’s sister and the director of social media and marketing for CAPES.

“If we had that 90 days, we would have gone well beyond.” Griffin responded to CAPES’ criticism by saying the group was “blaming others for its failure.” “Throughout the process, my staff and I were accessible and transparent,” Griffin said in a statement. “And as I explained in those three opinions, and again in person when we met, I am not authorized to rewrite a ballot title in what would amount to an independent product. CAPES’ leadership should direct their energies toward improving their performance, not blaming me for following the law.” Couch said the group should have simplified their petition by only targeting the LEARNS Act’s voucher program, also known as Educational Freedom Accounts.

Then there was the letter from Secretary of State John Thurston.

He informed Grappe that the campaign was 987 signatures short, and that his office had only counted them out of courtesy because his petition was “legally deficient” in that Grappe did not provide a signed affidavit. Grappe said it was due to a miscommunication with the secretary of state’s office.

When it came to crossing out signatures, Grappe took the blame.

“That’s a mistake that I allowed to happen that cost us this,” he said.

In Arkansas, direct democracy campaigns are often led by big money groups funded by industry or out-of-state donors. But CAPES, which sought to take on Sanders, was funded through small-dollar donations, at least according to its June financial disclosure with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. The group has yet to file a financial disclosure for July.

“Three weeks into the beginning of the campaign, nobody wanted to work with us because they thought it was a long shot,” Grappe said.

Unlike other direct democracy campaigns that employ paid canvassers, CAPES had no paid staff, relying instead on 2,500 volunteers, according to Grappe.

The group, according to its June disclosure, spent $18,345, the bulk of which was printing petitions and hiring a Texas-based firm to help them with fundraising.

“It would have been nice to have a lot more experienced people, maybe some paid sort of help,” Trevor McGarrah, a volunteer with CAPES, said. “But then again that’s also a hindrance because then it’s all about the money. But every single person that was out there collecting signatures did it because of how passionate they were for public education.”

What [Little Rock attorney David Couch] discovered was alarming. He estimated more than 1,000 signatures had been scratched out. But the signatures were not crossed out by the secretary of state’s office, but rather by CAPES’ own volunteers.


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