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Last Special Elections Yield Low Turnout, Mixed Results

by Kristin Higgins - November 15, 2023

Special elections are now history in Arkansas. Voters across the state in a handful of communities decided special elections Tuesday, including whether to build a new fire station, expand a jail, or to build a water park.

Election results were mixed and voter turnout was low. That low voter turnout is one reason legislators passed Act 300 in the 2023 Arkansas legislative session to require local ballot issues be on the spring or fall ballot with candidates unless there is an emergency.

"Local governments in Arkansas have used special elections held at irregular times consistently to raise taxes on our citizens. And in many instances this is a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low so that the folks who do show up are those with a vested interest in the passage of that measure," said Rep. David Ray, the bill's sponsor during the legislative session.

There is not a central database of local elections in Arkansas. According to an informal Secretary of State list, at least four Arkansas counties asked voters for input on sales tax proposals. Various news websites show there were a few more local ballot issue elections than what had been reported to the state.

Voters rejected the proposals in three communities and approved new funding in two communities. Turnout in each election was drastically smaller than the number of registered voters in those communities.

Unofficial Results

Craighead County - Approved
Voters in the city of Monette approved a 1% sales tax and three bond issues. The sales tax will pay off debt for a $2 million bond issue for a new fire station, a $1.1 million bond issue to build a new community center, and a $700,000 bond issue for lighting improvements at the ball park. The tax is expected to expire when the debt is paid off.
According to the Craighead County election coordinator, turnout was 12.9% with 94 of 729 registered voters showing up at the polls.
Jefferson County - Rejected
Voters in Pine Bluff for the second time this year rejected two separate sales tax proposals that were part of Go Forward Pine Bluff efforts.
Citizens were asked whether they wanted to approve a 0.625% general sales tax for seven years. Revenue from a second proposal - a permanent 0.375% sales tax - would have been earmarked for police and fire bonuses, insurance premiums, uniform costs, training, vehicle and building upgrades, and future raises.

Both taxes failed by a vote of 1,490 to 1,959 for the temporary general sales tax, and 1,560 to 1,763 for the police and fire sales tax.

Pine Bluff voters rejected the same two proposals in a May 2023 special election, with that election attracting a few hundred more voters. 

Lafayette County - Rejected
In Lafayette County, voters rejected a $5.7 million bond issue to make repairs and expand the county jail by 40 beds. Voters also rejected a proposal to refinance an existing $1.4 million bond issue.
On the issue of refinancing $1.4 million in bonds, the vote was 211 FOR and 248 AGAINST. On the issue of Jail and Law Enforcement Complex Improvement Bonds, the vote was 181 FOR and 279 AGAINST. 
A total of 466 people, or 14.28% of voters, participated in the election.
Mississippi County - Approved
Voters in Osceola approved an $18.4 million bond issue and two sales taxes to build a new water park and make improvements to the city's golf course.
A total of 599 people voted on both proposals, which included a 0.875% sales tax and bond issue as well as a 0.125% sales tax. The revenue will pay off the construction debt. The smaller of the sales taxes will pay for park maintenance before it expires in 2034.
The results for the $18.4 million bond issue and sales were 451 FOR and 146 AGAINST. For the 0.125% sales tax, the vote was 426 FOR and 169 AGAINST.
Saline County - Rejected
Voters in Bryant rejected levying a new sales tax on hotels and food, known as an Advertising and Promotion Commission tax. They also rejected a $16.9 million bond issue meant to build an indoor tennis and pickle ball courts. The bond issue would have been paid off by the hotel and food tax.
A new state law requires Advertising and Commission taxes to be decided by voters rather than by city councils and quorum courts. Bryant had proposed a 3% sales tax on hotel rooms and 2% sales tax on prepared foods sold at restaurants and delis. The vote was 195 FOR and 423 AGAINST.
County Clerk Doug Curtis reported a voter turnout rate of 3.78%.

Special Elections No More?

Research from the University of Central Arkansas reflects that between 1981 and 2020, 82% of local sales tax elections took place during special elections. Another 14% took place during fall general elections.

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, communities will have only two dates they can propose issues to voters.

  • In a presidential-election year, special elections would be allowed the second Tuesday in March or November. The issues would be on the ballot with candidates.

  • In non-presidential election years, cities and counties could hold special elections on the second Tuesday of May or November. This is typically when school board elections occur.

What Is Considered An Emergency?

Act 300 allows cities and counties to hold an election on a different date in case of emergency. The law defines an emergency to mean that:

  • A substantial change has occurred in the interpretation of the law by a federal or state courts which if not addressed by an election will render the governing entity incapable of performing its lawful duties and obligations;

  • Circumstances due to a fire, flood, tornado, or other natural disaster which if not addressed by an election will render the governing entity financially incapable of performing its lawful duties and obligations;

  • Circumstances that the governing body of the entity requesting the election has determined to be an imminent danger to public health and safety;

  • A delay of the emergency special election until the next date under this section would cause a substantial and undue hardship to the governing entity or a threat to the public peace, health, and safety.