Arkansans for Healthy Eyes filed a lawsuit Friday (Feb. 28) alleging that Safe Surgery Arkansas failed to meet requirements of state petition law and misled voters in collecting signatures in its effort to overturn Act 579.
The ballot initiative was recently approved that could allow voters to overturn a legislative act that broadened the powers of state optometrists. That law, Act 579, permitted optometrists to perform limited eye surgeries. On Friday (Jan. 31), Secretary of State John Thurston issued a certificate of sufficiency to Safe Surgery Arkansas for its act to amend the definition of the “practice of optometry.” Safe Surgery Arkansas represents the state’s ophthalmologists, who are seeking to reverse the law passed in the 2019 session that broadened the scope of practice for optometrists.
“Voters can now rest assured they will have the opportunity to vote on whether to allow non-medical doctors to perform eye surgery this November, and the more than 64,000 Arkansans who signed the petition will have their voices heard,” Alex Gray, an attorney representing Safe Surgery Arkansas, said when the initiative was approved for the ballot.
But the lawsuit alleges signatures were fraudulently gathered. Arkansas law defines petition fraud as including when a “person acting as a canvasser, notary, sponsor or agent of a sponsor…knowingly misrepresents the purpose and effect of the petition or the measure affected for the purpose of causing a person to sign a petition.”
“Our state law governing the petition process is designed to protect voters against fraud,” Vicki Farmer, chairperson of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, said in a statement. “In this case, not only were those requirements not met, but in many instances, paid petitioners presented voters with false information about Act 579 in order to induce them to sign the petition.”
According to the statement, the committee provided examples in its lawsuit where paid petitioners fraudulently said Act 579 allows optometrists to perform LASIK and cataracts surgery and that optometrists will need to obtain a medical degree before being allowed to perform eye surgery. LASIK and cataracts surgery are not among the five in-office procedures optometrists are allowed to perform under Act 579 – procedures that students in optometry school now are educated to perform.
“Our Constitution gives us the ability to refer an act to the People by following a legally defined petition process. No group should be able to evade the law and fraudulently mislead voters in their effort to put a measure on the ballot,” said Farmer.
Gray said the lawsuit is an effort to block the right to vote on the issue by all Arkansans.
“Again and again, this group has attempted to dismiss the will of the people who seek the right granted them by the state constitution to place this referendum on the ballot. Voters deserve an opportunity to decide whether nonmedical doctors should be allowed to perform surgery on the eye. Safe Surgery Arkansas has followed the law throughout this process. It’s time to stop the pointless and desperate litigation and let Arkansas voters have their say.”