Tagarkansas

Stories about Arkansas

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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Arkansas Legislature sends third and final constitutional amendment concerning religious freedom to November 2022 ballot

On April 27, the Arkansas State Legislature passed a third constitutional amendment titled the “Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment,” which will appear on the state’s November 2022 ballot.

The measure would amend the state constitution to provide that “government shall not burden a person’s freedom of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” The amendment would provide an exception to this requirement if the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest

To put a legislatively referred constitutional amendment before voters, a simple majority vote is required in both the Arkansas State Senate and the Arkansas House of Representatives. The Arkansas Legislature is able to refer up to three constitutional amendments to the ballot for each general election.

The amendment was passed in the Senate on April 22, 2021, by a vote of 27-4 with four members absent or not voting. The House passed the amendment on April 27, 2021, by a vote of 75-19 with six members absent or not voting. The measure was passed along party lines with most Republicans in favor and Democrats against it. Republican Representative Josh Miller was the only Republican legislator to vote against the amendment. Larry Teague was the only Democratic legislator to vote in favor of the amendment.

One of the other referred amendments would require 60% supermajority voter approval to ratify constitutional amendments (legislatively referred and citizen-initiated) and citizen-initiated state statutes. The other amendment would allow the state legislature to call itself into special sessions. Arkansas is one of 14 states where only the governor can call a special session.

A total of 44 measures appeared on the statewide ballot in even-numbered years between 2000 and 2020. During even-numbered years between 2000 and 2020, 73% (32 of 44) of statewide ballot measures in Arkansas were approved by voters, and 27% (12 of 44) were defeated.

The amendments to prohibit government burdens on religious freedom and to allow the state legislature to call itself into special session were proposed at least partially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions and government responses. Ballotpedia has tracked at least seven statewide measures put on the ballot in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and related regulations. Ballotpedia is also tracking seven potential statewide measures proposed in response to COVID-19.

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Arkansas State Legislature refers two constitutional amendments to 2022 ballot

The Arkansas State Legislature gave final approval to two constitutional amendments on April 22, 2021, sending them to the November 2022 ballot.

One of the amendments would require 60% supermajority voter approval to ratify constitutional amendments (legislatively referred and citizen-initiated) and citizen-initiated state statutes.

Constitutional amendments require approval by voters in a statewide election to become a part of the state’s constitution except in Delaware. As of 2021, 38 states required a simple majority vote (50%+1) for a proposed constitutional amendment to be adopted. In 11 states, voters must approve a proposed constitutional amendment by more than a simple majority or by some rule that combines different criteria. Two other states— Florida and Illinois— require a three-fifths (60%) vote of approval for constitutional amendments.

Currently, none of the 26 states with a process for citizen-initiated ballot measures require a supermajority vote of approval to adopt them. However, three states (Florida, Utah, and Washington) have a supermajority requirement for certain initiatives dealing with specified topics.

As of April 17, 2021, Ballotpedia had tracked 124 legislative proposals concerning ballot initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall in 34 states in 2021 legislative sessions. At least 14 had been approved. Legislation to enact or increase supermajority requirements for ballot measures was introduced in 2021 sessions in at least seven states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah legislators have passed restrictions on ballot measure processes in 2021.

The South Dakota State Legislature referred a constitutional amendment to the state’s 2022 ballot that would require a three-fifths (60%) supermajority vote for the approval of ballot measures that would increase taxes or fees or that would require the state to appropriate $10 million or more in the first five fiscal years.

The other amendment the Arkansas Legislature referred to the ballot would allow the state legislature to call itself into special sessions upon (a) a joint proclamation from the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore or (b) upon a proclamation signed by two-thirds of the members in each chamber. Arkansas is one of 14 states where only the governor can call a special session.

The Arkansas Legislature is able to refer up to three constitutional amendments to the ballot for each general election. As of April 24, 2021, one other constitutional amendment (SJR 14) has passed one chamber. It would prohibit government from burdening the freedom of religion except under certain circumstances. Upon passage by the House, it would be referred to the 2022 ballot.

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Republican-controlled Arkansas General Assembly overrides gubernatorial veto of bill prohibiting gender-affirming treatments for minors

On April 6, the Arkansas General Assembly overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s (R) veto of House Bill 1570 (H.B. 1570), a bill prohibiting physicians and healthcare professionals from providing chemical or surgical gender-affirming treatments—including hormone therapy and puberty blockers—to individuals under the age of 18. The bill also prohibits providers from referring minors elsewhere in order to receive such treatments. Gender-affirming treatment, also known as gender reassignment treatment, refers to the process of changing a person’s body to conform with their gender identity.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Flippo (R), a proponent of the bill, described the prohibited treatments as “something that oftentimes could be irreversible,” adding that “it is not simply too much to ask to let [children’s] minds develop and mature a little bit before they make what could be a very permanent and life-changing decision.”

In his veto announcement, Hutchinson said the bill would create “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people. … This would be, and is, a vast government overreach.”

Hutchinson vetoed H.B. 1570 on April 5. In Arkansas, a majority of votes in both chambers is required to override a gubernatorial veto. At the time of the veto, Republicans held veto-proof majorities in both the state House and Senate.

The House and Senate voted 71-24 and 25-8 in favor of the override, respectively. All Democrats, one independent, and three Republicans voted against the override. The remaining Republicans voted in favor of the override. Seven assembly members—one Democrat and six Republicans—did not vote.

This is the third noteworthy gubernatorial veto override Ballotpedia has identified in 2021.



Arkansas state Senator Jim Hendren leaves Republican Party, becomes an independent

On Feb. 18, Arkansas state Senator Jim Hendren announced he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. According to a statement issued by his organization, Common Ground AR, Hendren said, “This comes after many sleepless nights; a lot of serious consideration; and it comes with sadness and disappointment. But it’s clear-eyed. I’m making this decision because my commitment to our state and our country is greater than loyalty to any political party.”

Hendren was first elected to the Arkansas state Senate District 2 as a Republican on Nov. 6, 2012. He was an at-large delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention from Arkansas, and was one of nine delegates from Arkansas bound by state party rules to support Marco Rubio at the convention. Hendren also served as state Senate president pro tempore from 2019 to 2021. 

As of Feb. 19, six current or former officeholders have switched parties in 2021. Brian Boquist (I-Oregon), Phelps Anderson (I-New Mexico), and Hendren switched from Republican to independent, Vernon Jones (R-Georgia) switched from Democratic to Republican, and Aaron Coleman (D-Kansas) and Brittney Barreras (D-New Mexico) switched from independent to Democratic (Coleman briefly left the Democratic Party to become an independent in January 2021 before switching back at the end of the month). Of the six, two are members of state Senates (Boquist and Hendren), three are members of state Houses (Coleman, Barreras, and Anderson), and one was a member of a state House (Vernon Jones). 

The map below shows the number of party switches by state. The most party switches took place in Mississippi, which had 15 state legislators switch parties since 1994. Thirteen Democrats switched to the Republican party and two Democrats became independents.

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Voters decide runoff elections for two school board seats in Little Rock, Arkansas

A runoff election was held on December 1 for two seats on the Little Rock School District school board in Arkansas. The general election took place on November 3, with the top two candidates in each district advancing to the runoff. The seven other seats on the board were decided in the general election.

Evelyn Hemphill Callaway defeated Tommy Branch with 67% of the unofficial election night vote for the Zone 3 seat. Vicki Hatter defeated FranSha’ Anderson with 59% of the vote for the Zone 6 seat. Callaway and Hatter will join Michael Mason, Sandrekkia Morning, Leigh Ann Wilson, Ali Noland, Norma Johnson, Greg Adams, and Jeff Wood on the newly elected board.

The nine newly elected board members will be the school district’s first elected board since 2015. In 2015, the Arkansas State Board of Education voted 5-4 to dissolve the district’s board of education following poor academic performance in six of the district’s schools. The state board of education voted in 2019 to return the school district to local governance after the election of a new board in 2020.

Ballotpedia covers school board elections in the 200 largest school districts by student enrollment and the school districts that overlap the 100 largest cities by population.

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Arkansas Supreme Court clarifies deference prohibition

Image of Arkansas State Supreme Court building

The Arkansas Supreme Court on October 29 clarified in American Honda Motor Co. v. Walther that state courts should not exercise deference to state agency interpretations of statutes. Instead, the court held that Arkansas state courts should review agency statutory interpretations de novo—without deference to a previous interpretation of the underlying statute in question.

The court’s decision reiterated its May 2020 holding in Meyers v. Yamato Kogyo Co. that the court should determine the meaning of state laws and not defer to state agency interpretations of statutes.

In an opinion by Justice Karen Baker, the court cited its earlier holding in Meyers, stating that “it is the province and duty of this Court to determine what a statute means. In considering the meaning and effect of a statute, we construe it just as it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language. An unambiguous statute will be interpreted based solely on the clear meaning of the text. But where ambiguity exists, the agency’s interpretation will be one of our many tools used to provide guidance.”

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French Hill wins election to fourth term in U.S. House

Incumbent French Hill (R) defeated challenger Joyce Elliott (D) in the general election for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District.

Hill was first elected in 2014, and won his subsequent re-election campaigns in 2016 and 2018 58%-37% and 52%-46%, respectively. He led Elliott 55% to 45% in preliminary 2020 results.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) included the district on its Red to Blue list and spent $700,000, in addition to $1.2 million in spending from the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC. The Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund spent $1.6 million in the district.



Arkansas Supreme Court removes third citizen initiative from November ballot, leaving three legislative referrals for voters to decide

On September 17, the Arkansas Supreme Court removed Issue 6 from the November ballot. The referendum would have allowed voters to either repeal or uphold Act 579, which was designed to amend the definition of practice of optometry to allow optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures that were previously only performed by ophthalmologists. A yes vote on the referendum would have been a vote to uphold Act 579 while a no vote would have been a vote to repeal it.

During this cycle, the Arkansas Supreme Court removed all three citizen-initiated measures from the ballot—Issue 4, Issue 5, and Issue 6—that had been certified for the ballot. The rulings were all based on certifications filed by measure sponsors that said background checks were acquired for all signature gatherers. State law requires the certifications to state that background checks were passed by all signature gatherers.

Arkansans for Healthy Eyes led the campaign in support of a yes vote. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes supported Act 579 to allow optometrists to perform some eye surgeries. Safe Surgery Arkansas (SSA) led the campaign in support of a no vote. SSA sponsored the referendum signature petition. The group opposed allowing optometrists to perform some eye surgeries and sought to repeal Act 579. Safe Surgery Arkansas paid $661,000 to National Ballot Access, a petition circulating company, to collect signatures for the measure.

Issue 6 was removed from the ballot for the same reason that Issues 4 and 5 were removed in late August. Issue 4, sponsored by Arkansas Voters First, would have created the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission for state legislative and congressional redistricting. Arkansas Voters First paid $1.1 million to National Ballot Access, Advanced Micro Targeting, and Fieldworks LLC to collect signatures for the measure.

Issue 5, sponsored by Open Primaries Arkansas, would have (a) changed primary elections so that all candidates for an office are listed on a single primary ballot, rather than on separate partisan ballots, and (b) created a top-four ranked-choice voting system for general elections for federal congressional office, state general assembly, and statewide elected offices. Open Primaries Arkansas did not report signature gathering costs.

Under Arkansas Code § 7-9-601(b)(3), sponsors are required to certify to the secretary of state that each paid canvasser passed a state and federal criminal background check. The Arkansas Supreme Court found that proponents of the three measures failed to certify that paid signature gatherers passed background checks. The certifications submitted by petitioners stated that background checks were acquired, but did not say they were passed.

Sponsors of the referendum, Safe Surgery Arkansas, said they would pursue a new ballot measure in 2022.

Three measures remain on the November ballot in Arkansas. All three measures are constitutional amendments that were referred to the ballot by the state legislature. Issue 1 would continue a 0.5% sales tax for transportation projects; Issue 2 would change state legislative term limits; and Issue 3 would change initiative process and legislative referral requirements.

Two measures on the 2018 ballot in Arkansas were declared invalid by the state Supreme Court and votes for the measures were not counted. Similarly, in 2016, the supreme court declared two measures on the ballot to be invalid and votes were not counted.

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Ranked-choice voting and redistricting commission initiatives blocked from Arkansas ballot

On August 27, two Arkansas citizen-initiated measures—one that would have established a redistricting commission (Issue 4) and another that would have established ranked-choice voting (Issue 5)—were blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court from appearing on the November ballot. The measures were provisionally certified for the ballot on August 21, 2020.

The redistricting measure, sponsored by Arkansas Voters First, would have created the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission for state legislative and congressional redistricting. The commission would have been comprised of nine commissioners who are registered Arkansas voters and would have replaced the Board of Apportionment, which is currently responsible for state legislative redistricting in Arkansas. The current Board of Apportionment is comprised of the governor, the secretary of state, and the attorney general. Currently, in Arkansas, the state legislature is responsible for congressional redistricting. The measure would have also established criteria for drawing district maps.

Sponsored by Open Primaries Arkansas, the ranked-choice voting measure would have (a) changed primary elections so that all candidates for an office are listed on a single primary ballot, rather than on separate partisan ballots, and (b) created a top-four ranked-choice voting system for general elections for federal congressional office, state general assembly, and statewide elected offices, including Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer of State, Auditor of State, Attorney General, and Commissioner of State Lands.

The campaigns each submitted around 100,000 signatures on July 6. To qualify for the ballot, 89,151 valid signatures were required.

Secretary of State John Thurston (R) found on July 14 that signatures for the initiatives were insufficient on the grounds that petition circulators’ background check certifications did not comply with state law.

Under Arkansas Code § 7-9-601(b)(3), sponsors are required to certify to the Secretary of State that each paid canvasser passed a state and federal criminal background check. Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas campaigns submitted certifications stating that the background checks were acquired but did not say they were passed. The statements of insufficiency for the two measures came a day after Special Master Mark Hewett determined signatures submitted on January 31 for an optometry law referendum were invalid for the same reason. Hewett’s report was filed with Arkansas Supreme Court for a final determination.

The campaigns asked the state Supreme Court on July 17 to order Secretary of State John Thurston to give the campaigns 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. The campaigns were granted a provisional 30-day cure period. Arkansas Voters First reported submitting an additional 50,000 signatures on August 5. Open Primaries Arkansas reported submitting an additional 59,000 signatures on August 20.

Retired Circuit Judge John Fogleman was appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court on July 24 as a special master to resolve the disputes between Arkansas Voters First, Open Primaries Arkansas, and the secretary of state concerning petition circulator background check certifications and signature validity. Fogleman’s report was submitted to the state Supreme Court on August 10, 2020. Fogleman concluded that the Supreme Court needed to decide whether or not the campaigns’ background check certifications comply with Arkansas Code § 7-9-601(b)(3).

On August 21, Secretary of State John Thurston certified both measures for the ballot “for coding purposes and preparation purposes only, pending the outcome of the litigation.” Under Arkansas Code § 7-5-204, if the secretary of state has not determined a petition’s sufficiency by the 75th day before the general election or if a measure is being challenged in court, the measure must be placed on the ballot. If the measure is later declared insufficient or invalid, votes for the measure will not be counted or certified.

On August 27, 2020, Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of John Thurston. Associate Justice Robin Wynne, who wrote the majority opinion, said, “Simply acquiring or obtaining a background check is not sufficient under the plain language of the statute. The results of the background checks are not required to be filed with the Secretary of State, and the certification is the only assurance the public receives that the paid canvassers ‘passed’ background checks.” The state Supreme Court ruled, “In sum, we hold that petitioners did not comply with Arkansas Code Annotated section 7-9-601(b)(3) when they failed to certify that their paid canvassers had passed criminal background checks. Accordingly, the initiative petitions at issue are insufficient and petitioners are not entitled to a cure period or any other relief.” Justice Josephine Linker Hart dissented, writing, “Today, the majority has disenfranchised more than 90,000 citizens. By signing the petition, these registered voters clearly manifested their desire to have these issues placed on the ballot. … there is no evidence that the certification language directly affected the validity of even a single petition part.”

The campaign managers for Arkansas Voters First and Open Primaries Arkansas said they were exploring their legal options for keeping the measures on the ballot.

Two measures on the 2018 ballot in Arkansas were declared invalid by the state Supreme Court and votes for the measures were not counted. Similarly, in 2016, the supreme court declared two measures on the ballot to be invalid and votes were not counted.

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