Arkansas Petition Regulations Ruled Unconstitutional

Mar 5, 2014

Attorney David Couch

A Circuit Judge in Pulaski County has put a stop to provisions of a new law intended to regulate the petition process. Act 1413 sought to place stricter requirements on petitions, paid canvassers and groups sponsoring ballot measures.

In an opinion Tuesday Judge Mary McGowan ruled all six sections of the act are unconstitutional due to placing poorly defined conditions on petition gathering efforts, thus hampering and impairing the ability of Arkansans to exercise their rights.

State Senator Robert Thompson, of northeast Arkansas, co-sponsored the bill last year and says the low validity rate of signatures from 2012 petitions led him to support the law.

“A couple of petition gathering campaigns ended in some troubling results where it was fairly obvious that a lot of the signatures had been fraudulently obtained. The purpose behind the act was to try to reduce fraud or other misconduct in the petition gathering process,” said Thompson.

However, the Secretary of State’s office fulfilled its task of identifying bad signatures and groups pushing measures were required, as in the past, to submit additional signatures to meet thresholds for being placed on the ballot. 

David Couch represented the plaintiffs in the case and argues the new requirements are unrealistic for canvassers. 

“Say you’ve got groceries in one hand and a baby in the other, you write your name on there,  and you ask the person to fill out your address for you. You could do that previously but under the new law you couldn’t do that because you could only do that if the person had a disability, although it didn’t define disability. If you didn’t follow that process then you committed a crime, so it really put the petitioners saying, ‘Wow if I make a wrong call on what is or isn’t a disability I could go to jail,’” said Couch.

A number of other perceived problems with the act were outlined by Couch. He argued the case puts unwarranted burdens on canvassers such as throwing out entire submissions because of just one error.

“If you turned in 62,507 what I’ll call raw signatures and some of those petition forms had material defects, or obvious fraud, or there were a bunch of other elements that they had then the Secretary of State was obligated to not count those at all,” said Couch.

The act also makes divisions for the first time between paid and unpaid canvassing and requires canvassers to register their address publicly with the Secretary of State’s office.

While not commenting explicitly on the court case the Senator from Paragould said he believes the law strikes the right balance.

“It seemed to me that what became Act 1413 preserved the rights of people to put petitions on the ballot while at the same time enacting some anti-fraud measures,” said Thompson.

Aaron Sadler, the spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, says his office is considering an appeal and has expected the case might end up being decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court.