Arkansas Senate OKs new requirement for ballot measures

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Proposed initiatives would face a new hurdle to qualifying for the Arkansas ballot under a measure lawmakers sent to the governor Monday that more than triples the number of counties where signatures must be gathered.

The bill passed by the majority-Republican Senate raises the number of counties where a minimum number of signatures from registered voters must be submitted from 15 to 50. The House approved the legislation last month.

“The purpose of this would be to ensure that we’re getting representation from all across the state, not just large urban areas but rural counties as well, and having a lot of input into the process,” Republican Sen. Jim Dotson, a sponsor of the measure, told the Senate before the vote.

The move is the latest effort by Republicans to place more restrictions on the initiative process following the passage of several ballot measures in recent years that have included medical marijuana legalization and expanded casino gambling.

Arkansas voters last year rejected a proposal the Legislature put on the ballot that would have required a 60% vote to approve ballot initiatives. The proposal would have applied to measures placed on the ballot via petition or the Legislature.

The measure approved Monday is similar to another proposed constitutional amendment voters rejected in 2020 that would have raised the number of counties where signatures were required to 45.

“The voters have made it absolutely clear that they do not want the Legislature making it harder for them to get things on the ballot, and I think we should listen to them, Democratic Sen. Greg Leding, the Senate’s minority leader, said.

Opponents of the bill have also said the proposal would violate Arkansas’ constitution by going further than the limits it places on the referendum process.

“This is as plainly unconstitutional as any bill I’ve seen,” Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker said.

The bill passed on a 21-8 vote in the Senate with two Republicans voting with the Senate’s six Democrats against the measure. Five Republicans voted “present,” which has the same effect as voting against the bill.

Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders planned to sign the measure into law, spokesperson Alexa Henning said in an email. Henning said Sanders “wants to ensure all Arkansans, especially rural residents, have a voice in this process.”

Supporters of proposed initiated acts must collect signatures from registered voters equal to 8% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, and the requirement is 10% for proposed constitutional amendment. They’re also currently required to submit a minimum number of signatures from 15 counties.

The bill advanced as Republican lawmakers have sought restrictions in other states where ballot measures opposed by the GOP have won support.

In Missouri, where voters approved recreational marijuana last year and Medicaid expansion in 2020, the House has approved an effort to make it harder to amend the state’s constitution. That proposal, which would require voter approval, is pending before the Senate.

Oklahoma Republicans introduced several proposals this year to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot following voter approval of medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion in recent years.