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Arkansas Election Commissioners Certify Referendum Ballot Title

by Kristin Higgins - August 20, 2019

The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners this week certified their first statewide ballot issue for November 2020, reflecting a change in roles for them after a new state law shifted that responsibility from the Attorney General's Office to the appointed board.

But it's not certain the issue - a referendum on a law expanding the scope of practice for optometrists - will make it to the 2020 ballot despite the vote Monday.

A new bifurcated initiative process has resulted in the measure being rejected by the Secretary of State's Office while being certified by the Board of Election Commissioners. 

The Referendum - Rejected and Certified

Safe Surgery Arkansas, a group seeking to convince voters to overturn Act 579, submitted 84,114 voter signatures collected in at least 15 counties to the Secretary of State's Office on July 23. (Arkansas' Constitution requires referendum groups to submit at least 53,491 valid signatures from voters, or 6 percent the number of people who voted in the last governor's election.) 

Soon after, Secretary of State John Thurston told the group they didn't meet the threshold  he would not be counting thousands of the signatures submitted due to an election law change initiated by Act 376 of 2019.

The new election law requires sworn statements from paid canvasser be submitted to the Secretary of State's Office before they collect signatures. (Paid canvassers are supposed to declare they have not been convicted of illegal offenses that would prohibit them from collecting signatures).

Previously, the sponsor could file the canvasser statements at the same time they turned in petition pages with voter signatures. 

Despite the threshold mishap, the Secretary of State's Office submitted the referendum's ballot title last month to the Board of Election Commissioners to certify for the ballot as required under the new law.  

Act 376 - Board of Election Commissioner's New Role

The seven-member Board of Election Commissioners has historically provided education and training to county officials and election officials to help carry out elections and investigated complaints. They saw their role expand to certifying statewide ballot issues this year after the passage of Act 376. 

Certifying a title involves the appointed board deciding whether a measure's ballot title and popular name is:

  • Presented in a way that is not misleading.
  • Designed in a way that voter understands a vote "for" the issue would be a vote in favor of the matter and an "against" vote would be a vote against the issue.  

In the case of Act 579, a "for" vote would keep the law in place. An "against" vote would void the law. The referendum title accurately described the measure and Commissioners voted Aug. 19 to certify the ballot title. 

A spokeswoman for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, optometrists who want to keep Act 579, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after the vote that they believed the "referendum process ended two weeks ago, when the secretary of state rejected more than 60,000 unlawfully solicited signatures as invalid."

If necessary, the spokesperson said the group would challenge the ballot title too as being insufficient. 

Appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court

Like other controversial ballot measures in the past, the referendum's future depends on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Safe Surgery Arkansas has appealed Thurston's actions to the higher court, asking the court to require the signatures be counted and the measure be put on the November 2020 ballot. 

The group is also challenging Act 376, saying it's unconstitutional. 

A court date hasn't been set as of Aug. 20, but the ballot issue group has asked the court for an expedited hearing. They also asked that the law at the center of the referendum be put on hold until the issue is resolved by the court or by voters. 


Reader Resources
Read Act 376 
Read Act 579
Read Safe Surgery Arkansas' appeal (The docket number for Safe Surgery Arkansas v John Thurston is CV-19-641