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Measure filed for attorney general review of Arkansas ballot titles

Griffin, Thurston back bill on transfer from state board by Michael R. Wickline | January 31, 2023 at 5:21 a.m.
Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, explains HJR1005, a constitutional amendment to be known as the constitutional amendment and ballot initiative reform amendment, during the House session Thursday, April 15, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

State Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, on Monday filed a bill that would transfer the authority for considering certifying the popular name and ballot title of proposed ballot measures from the state Board of Election Commissioners to the attorney general.

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 state Board of Election Commissioners. Then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who is now the state's lieutenant governor, supported the 2019 measure.

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.

[DOCUMENT: Read Copy of HB1320 »]

Ray said Monday that it is better to have the attorney general rather than the state Board of Election Commissioners review the ballot title and popular name of ballot proposals because "in 2022 the Arkansas Supreme Court said the ballot title review process involving the State Board of Election Commissioners was unconstitutional."

"It's important that we have a review process in order to ensure that ballot titles are not misleading or deceptive, so my legislation returns the review authority to the Attorney General, just as it existed prior to being transferred to the State Board of Election Commissioners," Ray said in a written statement.

In September, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a decision by the state Board of Election Commissioners not to certify the ballot title and popular name of a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana and cleared the way for votes to be counted on the proposed constitutional amendment.

In the majority opinion, Justice Robin Wynne wrote that "We hold that there is a clear and unmistakable conflict between Arkansas Code Annotated section 7-9-111 and article 5, section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution.

"Article 5, section 1 provides that the Board 'shall certify' the ballot title to the Secretary of State," Wynne wrote in the ruling. "The word 'shall' is mandatory. Under the plain language of article 5, section 1, the Board has no discretion to determine whether to certify a ballot title; it must certify the title to the Secretary of State. Section 7-9-111, by giving discretion to the Board, violates article 5, section 1," thus the board had no authority to decline to certify the ballot title to the secretary of state.

Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a written statement that "I support House Bill 1320 because my office is uniquely qualified to review the legal sufficiency of ballot titles for statewide petitions.

"This bill restores the only review process that has been approved by the Arkansas Supreme Court," the Republican attorney general said.

Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Niehaus said Republican Secretary of State John Thurston supports the bill, too.

The secretary of state chairs the state Board of Election Commissioners.

Under Ray's House Bill 1320, the state Board of Election Commissioners would no longer consider the certification of the ballot title and popular name submitted on a statewide initiative petition or statewide referendum petition.

Before any initiative petition or referendum petition ordering a vote upon any proposed constitutional amendment or proposed initiative act shall be circulated for obtaining signatures, the sponsors are required to submit the original draft with the attorney general under the bill.

Within 10 business days, the attorney general shall approve and certify or shall substitute and certify a more suitable and correct ballot title and popular name for each amendment or act under HB1320.

If, as a result of his review of the ballot title and popular name of a proposed initiated act or a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, the attorney general determines that the ballot title or the nature of the issue is presented in such manner that the ballot title would be misleading, or designed in such a manner that a vote for the issue would be a vote against the matter or viewpoint that the voter believes himself casting a vote for, or that a vote against the issue would be a vote for a viewpoint that the voter is against, the attorney general may reject the entire ballot title, popular name and petition, state his reasons and instruct the petitioners to redesign the proposed measure and ballot title and popular name in a manner that would not be misleading.

If the attorney general refuses to act or if the sponsors feel aggrieved at the attorney general's acts in such premises, the sponsors may, by petition, apply to the state Supreme Court for proper relief.


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