Arkansas Pro-Alcohol Petition Drives Achieve Mixed Results

Aug 24, 2016

A map shows wet and dry counties in Arkansas. Counties that do not allow alcohol sales are unshaded. Shaded counties whose names are underlined may have municipalities within their borders that restrict the sale of liquor, beer and wine.
Credit dfa.arkansas.gov

So far, voters in Johnson and Little River Counties and in the city of Farmington will get to decide on allowing alcohol sales in their areas in the November 8th general election. But voters in other areas of Arkansas with similar drives may not, as various alcohol petition campaigns have been beset with organizational or statutory challenges.

Petitioners for wet-dry local option drives needed to successfully submit signatures from 38 percent of registered voters in the areas affected to their county clerks in order to get the alcohol measures on the ballot.

A pro-alcohol Yell County ballot question committee never submitted signatures, according to The Courier newspaper.

In Independence and Randolph counties, clerks say petitioners failed to gather enough valid signatures, each missing the ballot by a few hundred.

In throwing out signatures, the clerks have cited section 3-8-811(B)(6) of a 2015 state law saying a petition page with just one signature from someone living outside the county can disqualify all other signatures on that page.

On Tuesday, Independence County Circuit Judge Tim Weaver ruled against the pro-alcohol committee Keep Our Dollars in Independence County. The group had brought a lawsuit against Independence County Clerk Tracey Mitchell over the rejection of 424 signatures the committee viewed as valid. The group was 377 signatures short of reaching the required number for the measure to appear on the ballot.

“It’s a wholesale toss of valid signatures, making it that much more difficult to make the ballot and [it’s] really hard to do,” says Ross Jones, the secretary of the Keep Our Dollars in Independence County.

The group argued that the part of the 2015 law dealing with the disqualification of a page of signatures if one signature was from an out-of-county voter is unconstitutional. They cited an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling from last year.

Weaver says the state Supreme Court decision from 2015 in the case Spencer v. McDaniel did not apply to the Independence County case. The state’s high court ruled in Spencer that many portions of Act 1413 of 2013 were unconstitutional. Act 1413 attempted restricted the signature-gathering process, but it applied only state-wide petitions, Weaver said.

Spencer has no application to the constitutional challenge in this case against a statute regulating the sufficiency of local-option petitions,” Weaver’s ruling says.

So, the Independence county clerk’s decision to throw out the signatures stands. Ross said his group may decide to appeal Weaver’s ruling.

Independence County Clerk Tracey Mitchell took a neutral position on the constitutionality of the provision challenged in the case. She told KUAR that she and four employees had worked 12 to 15 hour days during a 10-day period in an effort to validate signatures for the petition. She said her employees accrued 124 hours of overtime in the process.

A lawsuit challenging the petition page technicality is also the issue in a Randolph County lawsuit, filed by the group Keep Revenue in Randolph County. The county clerk there invalidated 169 petition pages, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, leading the group to fall 361 signatures short of getting on the ballot.

Meanwhile, in Crawford County, the clerk there has allowed petition gatherers more time to collect signatures.  But Shayne McKinney of Keep the Dollars in Crawford County says the clerk has not completely finished the validation process for signatures already submitted.

“Because of all that ambiguity, it’s not easy to say where we are precisely or how many days we even have left,” McKinney says.

Normally, a county petition-gathering group is given 10 additional days to collect signatures if 75 percent of signatures submitted by the due date are proven valid.

KUAR was unable to reach Crawford County Clerk Teresa Armer for comment. McKinney says he’s confident his group will have collected its goal of nearly 12,000 signatures by the next time they hand in the complete petition.

Bentonville-based retailer Walmart has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to pro-alcohol drives in Arkansas this year. County-line liquor stores have largely contributed to efforts opposing pro-alcohol drives in dry counties.       

Correction: A correction was made to the caption of the map of counties above.