Heightened requirements to put measures on the Arkansas ballot awaits Sanders’ signature

Past attempts to change the citizen-led initiative process failed at the ballot box in 2020 and 2022

By: - March 6, 2023 8:12 pm

Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) encourages his colleagues to vote for House Bill 1419, which would increase the numbers of signatures and counties necessary for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, on March 6, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

A proposed Arkansas law that would make it harder for citizen-led petitions to qualify for the statewide ballot passed the Senate and went to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk Monday.

House Bill 1419 would require canvassers to gather signatures from at least 50 counties — up from the 15-county threshold laid out in Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution — to get a referendum, initiated act or constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.

Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) and Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs) co-sponsored House Bill 1419 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 260. The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Senate bill on Feb. 16, but the sponsors chose to advance the House bill, which was approved by the same committee Thursday after passing the House on Feb. 22.


How do initiatives get on the ballot?

There are three types of ballot initiatives — referendums, initiated acts and constitutional amendments.

The General Assembly can refer up to three constitutional amendments to the statewide ballot every other year.

Citizens can also petition to get a measure on the ballot.

Referendums to repeal acts of the General Assembly require signatures from at least 6% of voters from the previous gubernatorial election (53,491 in 2022).

Initiated acts require signatures from at least 8% of voters from the previous gubernatorial election (71,321 in 2022).

Constitutional amendments require signatures from at least 10% of voters from the previous gubernatorial election (89,151 in 2022).

The Constitution currently requires a minimum of “not less than one-half of the designated percentage of the electors” in each county in order for an initiative to qualify for the ballot. The original version of House Bill 1419 would have raised the threshold to three-fourths but was amended on Feb. 20 to keep the existing minimum.

“The purpose of this would be to ensure that we’re getting representation from all across the state, not just large urban areas but rural counties as well, and having a lot of input into the process [of amending] our constitution,” Dotson said Monday on the Senate floor.

The proposed law would remove the so-called “cure” period for petitions that get close but fall short of the required number of signatures upon inspection by state election officials.

Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) and Sen. Joshua Bryant (R-Rogers) joined the six Senate Democrats in voting against the bill. Republican Sens. Scott Flippo, Jim Petty, Clint Penzo, Terry Rice and Gary Stubblefield voted present. One senator was absent, and the remaining 21 Republican senators voted for the bill.

The initial vote resulted in the failure of the bill’s emergency clause, which needed a two-thirds majority to enable it to take effect as soon as the governor signs it.

The separate vote on the emergency clause yielded the minimum 24 “yes” votes, with Bryant, Flippo and Stubblefield voting yes, Rice and Penzo not voting and Petty voting present. King and the six Democrats voted no again.

“Blatantly unconstitutional”

In 2020, the Legislature referred Issue 3 to the ballot, but roughly 56% of Arkansas voters rejected the proposed constitutional amendment. It would have required canvassers to gather signatures from at least 45 counties, and it would have moved up several petition deadlines, among other things.

Then in 2022, the Legislature referred Issue 2 to the ballot. It would have required a 60% majority to pass most statewide ballot initiatives, and it too failed after roughly 59% of Arkansans voted no.

These votes made it clear that the public does not want to change the citizen-led petitioning process, and the Legislature should respect that, said both Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) and Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock).

Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle), the primary sponsor of Issue 2, said last year that it would have been a check on the influence of special interest groups and “deceptive advertising campaigns” with large amounts of money, especially from out of state.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) made a similar comment about House Bill 1419 on Monday.

“The intent of this bill is to keep our constitution protected, away from billionaires and the out-of-state rich who want to come and buy our constitution,” Hester said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) speaks against House Bill 1419 before the Senate on March 6, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Tucker disagreed, saying that requiring 50 counties’ approval “would guarantee that only the richest people could get an issue on the ballot.”

He added that the sole citizen-initiated ballot measure of 2022, a recreational marijuana proposal that failed with 43.7% of the vote, had almost no out-of-state funding while the three legislatively-referred measures, including Issue 2, had 5% out-of-state funding.

Dotson said the Legislature has the constitutionally-based power to make laws that are not included in the constitution. Tucker said this is true, but the constitution “is not silent” about citizen-led ballot measures, based on the existing requirements for counties and signatures, as well as Article 5’s “Unwarranted Restrictions Prohibited” clause.

Tucker said the bill violates this clause, which says no law shall be passed “to prohibit the circulation of petitions, nor in any manner interfering with the freedom of the people in procuring petitions.”

He said House Bill 1419 is “among the most blatantly unconstitutional bills” he has seen in his years in the Legislature.

“At the end of the day, what this is really about is control,” Tucker said. “The state Legislature wants to control all of the laws that are being passed in Arkansas… If this passes, we should change the state motto from ‘regnat populus,’ which is Latin for ‘the people rule,’ to whatever is Latin for ‘the Legislature rules.’”

Sanders plans to sign the bill, her spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in an email.

“The Governor wants to ensure all Arkansans, especially rural residents, have a voice in this process,” Henning said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.