Signatures readied for submission in Randolph County to seek ‘wet’ vote

by George Jared ([email protected]) 619 views 

Let Randolph County Vote, a grassroots organization formed to get the question of alcohol sales in the county on the November ballot, believes it has enough petition signatures to meet state requirements. LRCV collected at least 4,170 signatures, about 300 more than required, LRCV Chairwoman Linda Bowlin told Talk Business & Politics.

The group has 40 or so signatures that have not been processed, and it plans to continue to collect signatures this weekend, she said. The petition will be submitted to the Randolph County Clerk’s Office on Monday morning. The deadline for signatures is Aug. 8. The group would have 10 days to correct errors in the struck petition, or challenge rejected signatures, according to the Randolph County Clerk’s Office. Also, the group may not seek new signatures during the 10-day period.

It’s the third time organizers in the county have attempted to turn it wet, and LRCV used a refined process to obtain legitimate signatures from voters registered in the county, she added.

“We have a very stringent verification process using the exact list the clerks will use. We have obtained updated voter lists from the clerk along that way in March, June and last week. We will do our final turn-in by canvassers on Saturday at noon and then finalize the double/triple checking and numbering of each petition on Saturday night,” she said. “In addition we have almost 200 petitions, some of which we believe might be registered and, by agreement with the clerk, we will turn those in also, numbered differently, but as part of our total number of turn in.”

Past failures have served as a guide in this renewed effort, Bowlin said.

Arkansas’ law requires 38% of registered voters in a county to sign a petition to allow a wet/dry vote, meaning at least 3,813 voters had to sign in Randolph County in 2016. A different organization, Keep Revenue in Randolph County, spearheaded the effort in 2016, and collected about 6,000 signatures, but only 3,452 were validated by the Randolph County Clerk’s Office. A circuit court suit filed by proponents challenging the clerk’s finding was unsuccessful.

There were 10,056 registered voters in the county as of mid-March, meaning the group will need to collect 3,861 from registered voters this election cycle.

Only 5,060 Randolph County voters cast ballots in 2016, which could means alcohol sales have a good chance of being approved if it makes the ballot, Bowlin said. But hurdles remain. The Randolph County Clerk’s Office could invalidate the petitions or signatures and there could be potential legal challenges filed by liquor stories in adjacent counties that would lose revenue if Randolph County turned wet.

If an invalid signature is found on a petition, then state law dictates all signatures on the page be declared invalid, she said. The 40 or more volunteers and paid canvassers are putting only one signature per page, meaning if the signature is struck, it alone will be struck.

Petitions can be struck for minor errors and the petitions this time are under intense scrutiny, Bowlin said. When a voter signs a petition, the canvasser gets a phone number from that person. If there’s an error, such as a wrong date, then the voter is called and asked to fill out a new one. The process should ensure nearly all petitions submitted will be accepted, Bowlin said.

“Our process is much more refined and better focused,” she said.

Proponents of legalization efforts tout the county’s lost revenues as a motivation to drive alcohol sales in the county. A University of Arkansas survey estimated the county would have about $3.3 million in retail alcohol sales each year, and the county and the city of Pocahontas would collect about $107,000 a year in sales tax, combined. It would create at least 19 jobs, and have another $1.3 million in other economic impacts. Randolph County residents now drive to neighboring counties and Missouri to buy alcohol. Two bordering counties, Sharp and Greene, are wet.

If the measure is passed, beer and wine could be sold at grocery stores and convenience stores if the owners choose to do so. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division (ABC) allows for one liquor store per every 5,000 residents meaning the county, with fewer than 20,000 residents, would be allotted three package liquor store licenses, Bowlin said.

Bowlin understands the uphill struggle her organization faces. Sharp County voted to go wet in 2012 after environmentalist Ruth Reynolds fought for years to bring the issue to a vote. Some liquor outlets in neighboring counties and some local churches opposed the measure. Liquor store owners and religious organizations have fought for years to reduce access to alcohol in Randolph County, Bowlin contends.

If the petition makes the ballot, the group’s efforts will turn to voter turnout, Bowlin said. The heaviest lifting in this project is nearly finished, but there is still work to do.

“As far as our campaign if we get the issue on the ballot … We plan to use some signage and ads, but focus our person to person campaign on the petition signers in a get out the vote effort. We plan to contacting all or as many as we can, before early voting starts to remind them to vote,” she said.