UACES Facebook Legislators Propose Requiring Ballot Issue Petitions from 50 Counties
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Legislators Propose Requiring Ballot Issue Petitions from 50 Counties

by Kristin Higgins - March 2, 2023

Arkansans wanting to put a state law, veto referendum or constitutional amendment on the ballot may soon be required to gather voter signatures from 50 counties instead of the current 15 counties to qualify their proposals for Election Day.

House Bill 1419 will be on the full Senate agenda next week after the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill March 2 by a vote of 5-2.

The proposed law would strike existing language that requires ballot issue groups gather voter signatures from "at least 15 counties." In its place, the bill would put the number at 50 counties, or two thirds of the state's 75 counties.

“Out-of-state special interest groups can spend a lot of money in our state trying to change our constitution and all they have to do is gather signatures from 15 counties. And typically those counties are the larger counties and the more populated counties, which in turn allows them to ignore the rest of the state and ignore more rural counties,” said Rep. Kendon Underwood, the bills sponsor, at a Feb. 21 House committee hearing.

Requiring signatures from more counties would show that a ballot issue has more support from more Arkansans, he told legislators then.

“This feels more like an attempt to keep everything off the ballot,” said Rep. Nicole Clowney, who said 50 counties was “extreme” and a threshold few grassroot groups could meet without paid canvassers or out-of-state financial support.

The sponsor told legislators he went with 50 counties in House Bill 1419 because that represented two-thirds of the state. Underwood likened the ratio to the one required to amend the United States Constitution.

Committee members in support of the change said their predecessors in the early 1900s likely thought they were setting a high standard with 15 counties due to the difficulty of traveling the state. 

Deja Vu? HB1419 Versus Issue 3 of 2020

Issue 3 on the 2020 ballot would have required petitions contain voter signatures from 45 counties, among other changes to the citizen and legislative ballot issue process.

Voters in 70 counties rejected the measure by a vote of 503,028 in favor to 638,319 against. (Read our 2020 blog post about voter turnout)

Senators on March 2 debated why voters in 2020 failed the proposal.

"They go in the polling place. They're overwhelmed by trying to read page after page after page of what's been placed there by the legislature and by the public. It bogs down the polling process if they were to try to stand there and read them," said Sen. John Payton.  "In most of the instances where I communicated with constituents ... the overwhelming majority voted against all of them because they didn’t have time and they didn’t want to take the time to read all the way through them."

Sen. Clarke Tucker disagreed, previously saying citizens "have spoken on their desire to get issues on the ballot."

"Let’s just be real for a second about what this bill is about. It’s not about giving rural Arkansas more of a voice in having issues on the ballot. It's about having power and control. That’s it," Tucker said. "The members of this legislature want to have total control over the laws that are passed in Arkansas and they don't want to give that ability to the people."

The only person who signed up to speak about House Bill 1419 said the bill wouldn't reduce the number of constitutional amendments coming from the legislature, which refers more than citizen groups, or address out-of-state special interest groups from financially supporting legislative ballot measures.

“This bill is more likely to have the opposite effect as it would make ballot access more expensive," said Misty Orpin, director of Common Ground Arkansas.

Legislators on Thursday also disagreed whether language changes in House Bill 1419 could be done through state law versus another constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide.

Underwood previously told legislators that they didn’t need to refer the proposal to voters because “the constitution sets a floor but doesn’t set a ceiling.”

How Many Signatures Are Needed For Citizen Initiatives Right Now?

Arkansas is one of 15 states where citizens can petition to put state laws, constitutional amendments and veto referendums on the statewide ballot for voters to consider. House Bill 1419 would apply to all three of those methods.

The Arkansas Constitution requires a specific percentage of voter signatures depending on the type of proposal citizens are pursuing. The percentages are tied to the number of votes the governor received in the last election.

  • Constitutional amendments require signatures equaling 10% of the number of votes cast for governor.
  • State laws require signatures equaling 8% of the number of votes cast for governor.
  • Referendums on new state laws require signatures equaling 6% of the number of votes cast for governor.

In addition to a statewide percentage, groups are required to collect signatures equaling half the number of votes cast in those counties. (Secretary of State list: Voter Signatures Required by County in 2022)

Traditionally, ballot issue groups have submitted signatures from more than 15 counties as a safeguard. Voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment requiring ballot issue groups to collect at least 75% of the number of signatures needed in order to qualify for more time to gather additional signatures.

How Does 50 Counties Compare Nationally?

The Public Policy Center analyzed signature requirements across the country in 2021. States varied in their distribution requirements, with several using congressional districts rather than counties. Other strategies included prohibiting a large percent of signatures from coming from one county.

In states where there were county requirements, they appeared to be more cumbersome than Arkansas' existing requirement. Ohio, for example, required signatures from half of its counties (44 of 88). Legislators there are currently debating whether to raise the threshold for voter approval for ballot issues, from a simple majority to 60% voter approval. (Arkansas voters in 2022 rejected such a measure.)

Legislators in 12 states have filed at least 35 bills addressing the processes required to get a proposal on the ballot or pass a measure, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.