WEST MEMPHIS -- The Arkansas Democratic Party's state committee on Saturday approved lower filing fees for candidates running for seats in the state Legislature in 2024 in an effort to get more people to run.
For candidates who are not incumbents and are running for seats not held by or being vacated by Democrats, the party is also offering the option to gather a certain number of signatures instead of paying a fee.
The fee will drop from $3,000 to $2,500 for Senate candidates and from $1,500 to $1,000 for House candidates.
In lieu of a fee, candidates challenging Republicans or running for a seat being vacated by a Republican can also qualify by collecting signatures from voters in their district: 400 signatures for Senate candidates and 150 for House candidates.
Arkansas will also hold a special election for state treasurer in 2024, with the winner filling the final two years of Mark Lowery's four year term. Lowery died Wednesday, a day after his office announced that he would retire effective Sept. 30.
Candidates running for treasurer will have to pay a $1,250 filing fee or collect 5,000 signatures.
Last month, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Arkansas said the fees for GOP candidates for seats in the Legislature will stay the same as they were last year: $7,500 for Senate candidates, $3,000 for House candidates.
At a meeting at the Eugene Wood Civic Center in West Memphis, the state Democratic party's strategic director, Will Watson, outlined the Democrats' goal for 2024 to end the Republican super-majority in the state Legislature. Currently, Democrats hold only 18 out of 100 seats in the state House of Representatives and six out of 35 in the Senate.
Watson said by winning eight seats in the House and three seats in the Senate, Democrats would hold a bit of leverage they haven't had in years over the state's budget, which requires three-quarters support to pass in both chambers.
"We can sit down at the table when it comes to the budget and have some influence on what our state government's priorities are," Watson told the party members. "We can hold Gov. [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders accountable if we will simply deliver to our state House of Representatives and state Senate a significant, meaningful minority of Democratic representatives and senators."
Party Chairman Grant Tennille declined to say what state legislative seats Democrats plan to target in 2024, but added the goal is to have more candidates on the ballot in 2024.
So far, Democrats David McAvoy and Kate Schaffer have announced their intentions to run for the state House. McAvoy will run for the House District 32 seat in Jonesboro, currently held by Republican Jack Ladyman, while Schaffer will run for the House District 10 seat in Bentonville, currently held by Republican Mary McAlindon.
"It's looking like a horror show right now," McAvoy said of the Republican-controlled Legislature. "And I think a lot of people who may have been turned off voting for a Democrat, or might have been hesitant to do so, are now giving us a second look."
As for the state party's finances, it reported $133,830 in net assets, up from $66,047 a year ago. In June 2021, the party was $229,300 in debt.
The party has been boosted in part by Arkansans who no longer live in the state, with Tennille, who is unpaid, making a fundraising trip to Washington, D.C.
"We've got money in the bank for the first time," Tennille said. "We are where the [Democratic National Committee] recommends a party our size be."
LEARNS referendum campaign
Toward the end of Saturday's meeting, Steve Grappe, a member of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' executive committee reported a petition effort to put the LEARNS Act to a referendum has about 40,000 signatures.
Grappe, executive director of Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Student, also known as CAPES, said a major petition campaign this weekend could bring the group close to the 54,422 signatures it needs by Monday. Grappe said the group has hit the requirements for the number of signatures it needs in 41 counties. Under a new state law, to get a referendum on the ballot, a petition needs signatures from 3% of voters in at least 50 counties.
Whether or not the group achieves its goal of putting the LEARNS Act, Sanders' education overhaul law, to a referendum in November 2024, the petition effort will be a boost for the state's Democratic Party, collecting a long list of potential voters.
"You know what that means for us Democrats. I know where all the people are and I have 50,000 signatures -- by the end of this at least maybe [55,000], and we know where the people that are on our side are," Grappe said.
The effort to repeal the LEARNS Act is meant to be nonpartisan, Grappe said, even though those who support the law will try to cast his campaign as a "Democrat vs. Republican thing." Still, Grappe said the effort has relied on volunteer work from county-level Democrats.
"We decided to make this a nonpartisan event, organization," Grappe said. "But don't think the Democratic Party hasn't been helping us."