Arkansas legislators approve bill changing the state’s initiative process

The Arkansas state legislature gave final approval to Senate Bill 346 and sent it to the governor on March 6, 2019. The bill was designed to do the following:
  • make the state board of election commissioners, rather than the attorney general, responsible for approving a filed initiative and its ballot title and popular name;
  • change the timeline for approval of the ballot title and popular name to after signatures are submitted;
  • establish that, once signatures are submitted, if the board of elections does not approve the ballot title and popular name, the initiative petition is insufficient and cannot be certified for the ballot even if enough signatures were submitted; and
  • enact other provisions related to signature verification, approval of the ballot title and popular name, and related petitions to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The state Senate approved Senate Bill 346 in a vote of 26-5 on February 25, 2019. All 26 Republicans in the Senate voted in favor of it, five Democrats voted against it and four did not vote. The state House approved SB 346 78-13 on March 5, 2019. Seventy-one Republicans voted in favor of the bill in the House, two voted against it, and three did not vote. Eleven House Democrats voted against the bill, seven voted in favor of it, and six did not vote. Arkansas is one of 22 Republican trifectas.
Senate Bill 346 was supported by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Rutledge said, “This streamlined process will increase transparency by ensuring a public and bipartisan debate for all ballot measures proposed by Arkansans.”
Opponents argued that the bill could make the initiative process harder because initiatives and ballot titles could be rejected by the board of elections after signatures were collected and verified, making it more risky to fund signature gathering for initiatives. Melissa Fults, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Education Group, is working on a marijuana legalization initiative in Arkansas. Fults said, “They’re [the election commissioners] going to be prejudice on the subject whether they’re a liberal group and you have a conservative message or if you’re a conservative group and you have a liberal message.”
Sen. Mathew Pitsch (R) said the bill realigns the state process with the existing constitutional provisions.
During the 2018 election cycle, Ballotpedia tracked 83 initiatives with ballot titles submitted to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R), many of which were revised versions of the same proposal. Prior to a supreme court ruling on May 23, 2018, Rutledge rejected all but one of these for circulation. The supreme court ruled that Rutledge had to either approve certain submitted ballot titles for circulation or provide a ballot title that could be circulated. In 2018, citizen initiatives to increase the minimum wage and authorize four casinos qualified for the ballot and were approved.
Ballotpedia is tracking 135 legislative proposals introduced into 2019 sessions concerning ballot initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall in 31 states. Two initiatives directly related to initiative and referendum laws were also filed in Missouri and South Dakota. Topics include ballot language, signature requirements, pay-per-signature, distribution requirements, circulation rules, subject restrictions, supermajority requirements, and election dates.