Arkansas passes bill with multiple restrictions on the ballot initiative process

On April 29, Arkansas Senate Bill 614 became law (Act 951). The bill added several restrictions to the state’s ballot initiative and veto referendum process, including to:

• ban paying signature gatherers based on the number of signatures gathered, a payment method called pay-per-signature;

• require circulators to be state residents and citizens;

• add certain offenses that disqualify a person from being a signature gatherer, including assault, battery, intimidation, threatening, sexual offenses, trespassing, vandalism, and theft (in addition to the existing list of any felony, election law violations, fraud, forgery, and identity theft);

• require initiative sponsors to certify that signature gatherers do not have any disqualifying conviction and put the burden of proof on initiative sponsors with regard to lawsuits and administrative proceedings;

• make it a felony for petition sponsors or their representatives to knowingly pay a circulator for or submit petitions for which the circulator did not personally witness all signatures; and

• make it a felony for a circulator to not report another circulator that provides a false affidavit that they personally witnessed all signatures.

The state House passed an amended version of the bill on April 14 by a vote of 72-18. The Senate passed it on April 22 by a vote of 27-5. In the House, 72 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and 17 Democrats and one Republican voted against it. In the Senate, 26 Republicans and one Democrat voted in favor of the bill, and four Democrats and one independent voted against it. It became law after the governor’s five-day window to veto bills passed. Arkansas has a Republican state government trifecta. 

Provisions in Senate Bill 614 about disqualifying offenses for signature gatherers and the responsibilities of initiative sponsors regarding those offenses would replace the state’s previous background check requirements that were overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court on March 11. The ruling upheld a lower court decision that blocked the enforcement of the state’s background check requirements for paid circulators. The lower court ruled that the sections of state law requiring that information from a federal background check be included were impossible for sponsors to comply with since there was no way to obtain a federal background check. During appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Secretary of State John Thurston (R) argued that requirements for state police background checks could be left in place while blocking federal background check requirements. The supreme court ruled that the federal and state background check provisions could not be separated.

The Arkansas Legislature also referred a constitutional amendment to the November 2022 ballot that would require 60% supermajority voter approval to adopt future constitutional amendments (legislatively referred and citizen-initiated) and citizen-initiated state statutes.

2021 ballot measure law changes context

Ballotpedia has tracked 180 legislative proposals concerning ballot initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall in 37 states in 2021 legislative sessions. At least 16 have been approved, and 12 have been defeated or have died.

Legislatures in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah have approved bills to restrict the ballot initiative processes in their states.

Notable topics among bills introduced in 2021 sessions include supermajority requirement increases, signature requirement and distribution requirement increases, single-subject rules, pay-per-signature bans, residency requirements and other circulator restrictions, fiscal impact statement and funding source requirements, and ballot measure campaign contribution restrictions.

Ballotpedia recently published an analysis of the effect of certain policy changes on the ease or difficulty of the ballot initiative and veto referendum processes. The analysis is based on generic concepts taken from proposed and approved laws that Ballotpedia has tracked since 2010. Twenty-six states have a process for either ballot initiatives, veto referendums, or both.

The analysis does not take into consideration the intention behind any proposed policy changes. It does not consider any other effects beyond the difficulty or ease with which ballot initiative or veto referendum sponsors can place their measures on the ballot, pass them, and see them enforced. Bills proposing these changes are not necessarily designed with the purpose of making the initiative process harder or easier. Ballotpedia is not endorsing any position on the policy changes listed in the analysis. The analysis covers topics including signature requirements and deadlines, a variety of restrictions on petition circulators, ballot and petition language requirements, petition formatting, legislative alteration, and supermajority requirements.

Click here to see the full list of policy changes.

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