Arkansas lawmakers heard testimony on July 6, 2023, about alleged abuses of the signature-gathering process in Pope County's contentious casino issue last year. (Getty Images)
The unusual business of ballot initiative canvassing was on full display at the Arkansas State Capitol Thursday morning.
A legislative committee heard allegations of harassment, assault and even arson during a contentious three-hour hearing on last year’s signature-gathering battle over the license for a new casino in Pope County.
The testimony, which included a host of claims with varying degrees of supporting evidence from both sides, prompted the Joint Performance Review Committee to ask state and local law enforcement officials to investigate for potential criminal conduct.
Legislative staff were also instructed to study ways the General Assembly could reform the canvassing process.
“If I was going to write an article today, I would write: ‘JPR shows what a complete cluster-expletive this process is,’” said state Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville.
In 2022, casino opponents in Pope County partnered with the Choctaw Nation — a tribe that applied unsuccessfully for the new casino license — to gather signatures for a ballot initiative aimed at removing the west-central Arkansas county as an authorized casino site.
That effort led to a nasty canvassing fight with the Cherokee Nation, which holds the license to open a casino in Pope County. (That license is on hold as the Arkansas Supreme Court weighs a lawsuit challenging the Cherokees’ permit.)
Fair Play for Arkansas blitzed the state with canvassers in 2022 for its effort to put an initiative on the ballot in hopes of preventing the construction of a casino in Pope County.
The Cherokees and a ballot question committee called the Arkansas Tourism Alliance launched a counter-offensive, using direct advertising and canvassing “blockers.”
These blockers, who try to discourage people from signing their names on ballot petitions, were the main focus of Thursday’s hearing.
In addition to holding signs and discouraging would-be signers, some blockers offered money to Fair Play’s canvassers to stop collecting signatures and join the blocking efforts. In some cases, the blockers offered canvassers money to simply stay home.
There have also been allegations that Arkansas Tourism Alliance’s blockers offered Fair Play canvassers money to destroy petitions that had already been signed.
An audio recording transcript of one blocker — Kristin Foster — appearing to make such an offer was entered into the legislative record, but Foster testified that the recorded conversation occurred early in the morning and the petitions in question didn’t contain any signatures.
Even if the petitions had already been signed, such conduct wasn’t against the law until the General Assembly passed a law to regulate canvassing blockers early this year.
Fair Play officials also said that some blockers harassed canvassers through intimidation and one instance of an alleged physical assault.
The most serious allegation involved a Fair Play canvasser whose house burned down. A private investigator hired by Fair Play concluded that the fire was arson, but the Pope County prosecutor and Arkansas State Police investigators said they didn’t see evidence that pointed to an intentionally set fire.
Fair Play’s ballot initiative didn’t qualify for the ballot in 2022 after it failed to submit enough valid signatures to the Arkansas Secretary of State.
Lawmakers’ frustration surfaces
Thursday’s hearing represented continued fallout over the conflict between the two tribal entities centered around the casino.
“It feels like Arkansas is a turf battle of rival gangs,” said state Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock.
It also feeds into the Legislature’s frustration with the ballot initiative process.
Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution was approved by voters as a result of the initiative process in 2018, authorizing casinos in Garland, Crittenden, Jefferson and Pope counties.
That same year Arkansas also approved an initiated act to raise the state’s minimum wage gradually to $11 an hour.
In 2016, Arkansans approved Amendment 98, which legalized medical marijuana.
All three measures were mostly opposed by the Republican-majority Legislature.
The General Assembly passed a handful of measures to make it more difficult to petition for ballot initiatives during this year’s legislative session, including legislation that raises the number of counties that initiative groups must canvass in.
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