Fate of four initiatives in Arkansas uncertain due to state law requiring signature gatherers to certify that they passed background checks

A veto referendum concerning eye surgeries, which was certified on January 31 to appear on the November ballot, is awaiting a final determination from the Arkansas Supreme Court about whether it will remain on the ballot.


Arkansans for Healthy Eyes (opponents of the veto referendum effort) filed a lawsuit on February 28, 2020, alleging that Safe Surgery Arkansas, the sponsors of the veto referendum effort, fraudulently gathered signatures and misled petition signers. On April 2, 2020, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Special Master Mark Hewett to conduct a hearing and review petitioners’ claims and to submit a report of his findings to the court.


Arkansas state law requires sponsors to certify to the Secretary of State that each paid canvasser passed a state and federal criminal background check. Safe Surgery Arkansas certified that the “background check, as well as a 50-state background check, have been timely acquired.”


In his report on July 13, Special Master Mark Hewett found that state law—§ 7-9-601(b)(3)—requires sponsors to certify that canvassers passed the background checks and that Safe Surgery Arkansas’ certification said instead that the checks were acquired.


Alex Gray of Safe Surgery Arkansas said he was confident that the Supreme Court would allow the signatures to stand. A supreme court ruling is expected in mid to late August.


On July 14, 2020, Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston determined that signature petitions for three citizen initiatives for which proponents submitted signatures on July 6 are insufficient based on the requirement that sponsors certify that canvassers passed background checks and said his office was barred from counting the signatures that were submitted.


Arkansas Wins in 2020, sponsors of an amendment to authorize 16 additional casinos, did not file the certification. Similarly to Safe Surgery Arkansas, the Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas campaigns submitted certifications stating that the background checks were acquired but did not say they were passed. Arkansas Voters First is supporting an amendment to create an independent redistricting commission. Open Primaries Arkansas is supporting a top-four open primary ranked-choice voting initiative. Safe Surgery Arkansas, Arkansas Voters First, and Open Primaries Arkansas used petition gathering company National Ballot Access to gather signatures.


The campaigns asked the state supreme court on July 17 to order Secretary of State John Thurston to count the signatures and give the groups at least 30 days to collect additional signatures. In Arkansas, if petitioners fail to meet the signature requirement, but the petitioners have gathered at least 75% of the valid signatures needed, petitioners have 30 days to collect additional signatures or demonstrate that rejected signatures are valid.


David Couch, attorney for the redistricting and ranked-choice voting measures, said he would file an amicus brief in the veto referendum case that is pending supreme court action.


The state legislature has referred three constitutional amendments to the 2020 ballot that would (1) make permanent a 0.5 percent sales tax to fund transportation otherwise set to expire in 2023, (2) change term limits for state legislators, and (3) change initiative process and legislative referral requirements.


From 1996 through 2018, an average of four measures appeared on the ballot during even-numbered years in Arkansas. During even-numbered years between 1996 and 2018, 73% (35 of 48) of statewide ballot measures in Arkansas were approved by voters, and 27% (13 of 48) were defeated.