A group wanting to change the process for drawing congressional and legislative districts in Arkansas recently filed a federal lawsuit seeking additional time to collect voter signatures for their ballot measure citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
filed this month by Arkansas Voters First also asks for the ability to collect voter signatures electronically. Arkansas law requires ballot issue signatures to be collected on paper petitions, and that petitions be witnessed as well as signed by notaries public before they are turned in to the Secretary of State's Office.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment said it would be impossible to collect the required 89,151 valid voter signatures with hundreds of event and festival cancellations this spring and social distancing requirements.
A certain percentage of these signatures must be collected from at least 15 Arkansas counties. (Issue 3 on this year's ballot would increase that requirement to 45 counties for future elections.)
Ballot issue groups often collect thousands of more signatures than required to make up for duplicate signatures, illegible signatures or non-voters signing the petitions.
State officials have said they can't change deadline requirements. Arkansas' Constitution requires ballot issue petitions be turned in at least four months before the election. The deadline to submit signatures for 2020 ballot measures is July 3. The Secretary of State has 30 days to verify the signatures and until the end of August to certify the ballot for Arkansas' 75 counties.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to give ballot issue groups until Aug. 3 to collect the required voter signatures. No court date has been set though attorneys and the judge have been reviewing motions filed in the lawsuit.
After every federal Census, Arkansas legislators redraw congressional districts for the four U.S. Representatives based on new population information. Districts are supposed to have an equal number of people living within them. Arkansas' process was created by Amendment 23 in 1936. Voters amended the process again through the citizen initiative process in 1956 with the passage of Amendment 45.
The governor, secretary of state and attorney general are responsible for drawing 135 state legislative district boundaries. These maps determine who Arkansas' state and congressional leaders represent and who voters will see on their ballots. These maps are why voters living on opposite sides of a street may have a different legislator representing them, or why counties may have multiple representatives due to how the districts are divided.
The federal Census is currently under way, and
is expected to start in 2021. The next Census won't take place until 2030.
The proposal is one of 13 proposed ballot measures submitted to the Secretary of State for the November 2020 ballot. Supporters for eight proposals have filed paperwork with the Arkansas Ethics Commission indicating they were raising or spending money on the measure. See our "Signature Collecting" section in this newsletter for a list of the 13 ballot measures.
Arkansas is one of 15 states that allows citizens to propose constitutional amendments, state laws and referendums. None of the other states allow for digital signature collecting for ballot measures, according to
, a website tracking ballot measures.
Ballotpedia shows that sponsors of at least 10 other ballot measure campaigns in five states have asked for relief from signature requirements. Results so far have been mixed, with two requests being rejected in the U.S. District Court of Arizona due to the state constitution requiring signatures be collected in person.
Groups that had started canvassing in Arkansas have mostly stopped. Some groups have urged their volunteers and supporters through social media to request individual petitions to sign, but the petitions must be signed by notaries public who may not be available.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson's
signed earlier this month suspended in-person requirements for some notary public signatures but that order did not apply to ballot issue petitions.
A proposed ballot issue submitted to the Secretary of State's Office in December seeks to allow digital signatures, but the supporter of that measure hadn't started collecting the required voter signatures before the pandemic started.
Ballot Measures on Arkansas' November Ballot
It's uncertain whether any ballot measure from the public can make it on this year's ballot due to the pandemic and social distancing. 2010 was the last time no measures from the public appeared on the ballot.
Arkansas legislators have referred three amendments to voters and a group collected enough signatures for a referendum on a 2019 state law.