Redistricting, open primaries efforts submit signatures for ballot

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 904 views 

Supporters of petition drives to create a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission in Arkansas and also a system of open primaries and ranked choice voting presented signatures to the Secretary of State Monday (July 6), the deadline to qualify for the November elections.

Arkansas Voters First, which supports creating the nonpartisan redistricting commission, submitted about 100,000 signatures.

The group must collect 89,151 verified signatures of registered voters to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment for the 2020 election. Arkansas Voters First also presented enough signatures to satisfy a requirement that petitioners collect at least 5% of the total votes cast in 15 counties in the previous gubernatorial election.

By crossing the 89,151-signature threshold, the effort will qualify for a 30-day cure period giving it time to collect additional signatures if needed. The Secretary of State’s office will validate that the signatures come from eligible registered voters. Attorney David Couch, who is working with the effort and has been involved in past amendment efforts, estimated that about 75,000 would be declared valid, which would require additional ones to be submitted during the cure period.

From there, the state Election Commission would approve the sufficiency of the ballot title.

If approved by voters in November, the amendment would create a nine-member citizens commission that would determine districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature. The commission would include three Republicans, three Democrats and three Arkansans who are not members of either party.

Congressional district lines are now determined by the state Legislature, while state legislative lines are determined by the Board of Apportionment composed of the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State.

Bonnie Miller, the group’s chairperson, said in recent years both Democrats and Republicans in other states have drawn heavily gerrymandered maps, or maps meant to maximize the number of seats their parties control.

“The system that we currently have allows politicians to choose their voters and not the other way around, and that leads to a government where politicians are not held accountable,” she said.

Miller is the president of the Washington County League of Women Voters and a member of the League’s state board of directors.

“We believe that gerrymandering is the biggest threat to democracy that we face today, and we see redistricting as a new frontier in civil rights,” she said.

The effort has collected more than $1.8 million according to its latest campaign finance report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission June 15. Almost all of that came from the Houston-based Action Now Initiative, which was founded by billionaires John and Laura Arnold.

Miller, who wore a mask while talking to reporters, said the campaign’s efforts will depend on the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus so far has been “to make it to today.”

A sister effort was submitting more than 93,000 signatures for a top-four-ranked-choice voting system.

If approved by voters, the top four candidates in the primary election would advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, with space for a write-in candidate provided. Voters would rank their preferences when they cast their ballots. If no candidate wins a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her next choice is awarded the votes. The process continues until a candidate wins a majority.

The Open Primaries Arkansas effort was launched in earnest in early June, said Couch. More than 150 paid signature gatherers funded by Arkansas Voters First concurrently collected signatures for Open Primaries Arkansas, and now Open Primaries Arkansas will operate as a separate entity.

The group’s campaign manager, Stephanie Matthews, said today is the group’s official launch.

“It just allows Arkansas voters to have more choice and more voice in their elections,” she said. “Open primaries allow Arkansans to not have to choose between two parties in the primaries. They don’t have to choose a party ballot. They’re able to choose candidates based on the ones who represent their values, and not who represent special interests.”

The group has not yet filed a financial report with the Ethics Commission, but Shelton said it has received “seed money” from the Action Now Initiative.

Arkansas Voters First had filed suit this year seeking to reduce the number of required signatures, seeking the ability to collect signatures electronically, and asking for the deadline to be extended to Aug. 3. U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III ruled that the group could collect signatures from a form printed off its website, but when the state appealed, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the ruling.

When that happened, Arkansas Voters First concentrated on traditional signature collection efforts, including drive-up petition drives. All but about 1,000 of its signatures were collected in person, Couch said. Open Primaries Arkansas collected all of its signatures in person. Couch said the collecting firm, National Ballot Access, has developed locations in the state where collectors are familiar to locals.

George Shelton, a spokesman for both efforts, said most of the signatures were collected over the last 30 days after the attorney general appealed the decision. Signature collectors were active at signing stations in seven cities Friday and Saturday.

UPDATE: Petitioners supporting the constitutional amendment creating a top-four primary system and ranked choice voting submitted 94,913 signatures to the secretary of state’s office July 6, barely getting them in the door before the 5 p.m. office closing deadline had passed.

Campaign organizers had worked through the day counting and finalizing their submission and then arrived well before the deadline, but the hired moving truck carrying the signatures was delayed when it switched drivers because the driver had to go to school. It arrived at the secretary of state’s office minutes before the office closed, leaving organizers to scramble as they rushed armloads of boxes from the truck to the office.

“I’m not nervous; I was just excited,” said campaign manager Stephanie Matthews. “Over 94,000 signatures in the middle of the pandemic with all the challenges that that presents. I think that’s a testament to how badly Arkansas voters want to see open primaries.”