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Senate committee OKs bill making it illegal to destroy signatures on ballot petitions

by Neal Earley | March 16, 2023 at 4:23 a.m.
Melissa Harris (left) speaks in favor of Senate Bill 377, which would regulate paid petition blockers, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Judiciary at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday. Harris described her time as a paid canvasser when she was harassed and threatened by petition blockers. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Senate Judiciary Committee weighed into a contentious bout of Arkansas casino politics Wednesday, advancing a bill that would make it a crime to destroy signatures on a ballot petition.

The bill comes from the heated campaign over a proposed amendment to the state's constitution to revoke the gaming license for Pope County, which has become a bitter debate between two Native American groups that had vied for the license.

Senate Bill 377, sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, would make it a misdemeanor to destroy a signature, other than your own, on a ballot petition. The bill stems from incidents in which canvassers, who were paid to collect signatures to get the amendment on November's ballot, were threatened and harassed, they told the committee Wednesday.

One canvasser said she was offered money to throw away signatures she collected for a proposed constitutional amendment. Another said operatives from the opposing side threatened him.

The bill also states paying a person or accepting money to destroy ballot signatures would count as a Class A misdemeanor. The proposed legislation also concerns people known as "blockers," who are hired by campaigns to convince people not to sign ballot petitions. The bill would require paid signature blockers to register with the state, just as paid canvassers are required to do.

"Members, from time to time, we are accused of running a bill for an issue that doesn't exist. This bill is certainly not that," said Senate President Pro-Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, who presented the bill in committee. "This is a real problem we are dealing with in Arkansas."

[DOCUMENT: Read the bill on initiative petition signatures »]

At the center of the issue was a proposed constitutional amendment to cancel the gaming license for a planned casino in Pope County. A constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018 cleared the way for the state to issue gaming licenses to four casinos. Since then casinos in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis have opened, while a fourth, scheduled to be located in Pope County, has not gotten off the ground.

The campaign for the amendment to repeal the Pope County casino license was led by Fair Play for Arkansas 2022, which was largely funded by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The campaign against the amendment was led by the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, mostly funded by Cherokee Nation Businesses of Catoosa, Okla.

In 2019, Arkansas racing commissioners awarded a gaming license to Cherokee Nation Businesses to operate a casino in Pope County, but that decision was overturned in January by a Pulaski County judge.

Both groups were heavily funded by casino interest with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma donating $4.1 million to get the casino license axed and Cherokee Nation Businesses donating more than $2.3 million to effort to defeat the amendment. Choctaw Nation was one of the groups that applied for a gaming license after a majority of Arkansas voters legalized casinos in 2018.

"What usually happens is a committee forms to hire canvassers, a committee forms to block," said John Burris, a lobbyist who represented the proposed amendment to cancel Pope County's Casino license. "There's always moneyed interests on both sides, it's not organic democracy."

The proposed constitutional amendment to revoke the Pope County gaming license did not make it onto the ballot for November's election. Burris, a former member of the General Assembly, presented the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying it was unfair for paid blockers to not follow the same rules as paid canvassers.

"The reason paid blockers should have the same rules is because we should not be disadvantaging our citizens trying to access their ballot," Burris said.

Melissa Harris, a paid canvasser collecting signatures for the amendment, said she was harassed by an operative who said she was "offered a bribe to destroy or throw away my legally collected signatures." The incident with Harris was brought to Jeff Phillips, the prosecuting attorney in Russellville, who investigated the allegation. After looking into the incident, Phillips said the state's law on petition fraud is "silent" on whether it is legal to pay someone to destroy a signed petition.

In another incident, Harris said blockers threatened to push her in front of a moving car and followed her for part of the way back home to Pope County from Conway.

"At one point, I told them, 'I don't know you. I don't talk to people I don't know,''' Harris said. "... and they said, 'Well, we know you,' and they told me my name, they told me my address, and they were right."

Harris said she did not call the police, instead calling her boss, who may have called the police.

Ted Stiritz, a paid canvasser who collected signatures for the casino amendment at a farmer's market in Fayetteville, said blockers suggested "they break my legs and leave me for dead."

"It's hard to be an individual being screamed at by seven people at the same time when you don't know who they are, and they know who you are," Stiritz said. "There's a scary asymmetry of power there."

David Couch, a Little Rock attorney who led the blocking campaign for the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, said his group used only free speech, along with some cash, to thwart the petition.

Couch said his campaign only used their First Amendment Rights to persuade voters to not sign the petition, which included the use of radio and television ads and blockers holding signs encouraging voters to not sign petitions.

"That was the entire plan that we had in trying to convince people to not sign the petition, which is constitutionally protected free speech, and it worked," he said. "This is nothing but sour grapes."

Couch said he is unaware of any of his paid blockers threatening canvassers from the other side. As for the allegation his group offered money for a canvasser to throw away her petition, Couch said he was unaware of that incident. Instead, he encouraged his operatives to entice canvassers from the pro-amendment side to switch teams, offering them higher pay.

Couch called the bill "over broad," saying asking paid blockers to register with the state ran afoul of the First Amendment. He also said the bill would essentially require anyone who collects signatures for a petition to turn it in to the Secretary of State's Office, lest they be accused of destroying signatures.

"I have no problem criminalizing the buying and destroying of signatures. That probably should be law," Couch said. "We played hard, we played fair, we won. Accept the result."

  photo  John Burris (left) and Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, present Senate Bill 377, which would regulate paid petition blockers, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Judiciary at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Print Headline: Panel OKs ballot-petition bill


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