Secretary of State rejects three ballot proposals over background check debate

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,317 views 

Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston rejected three potential ballot issues on Tuesday (July 14) claiming that supporters of the measures did not “pass” background checks for petition gatherers.

All three groups contend that Thurston is in error.

The three issues include Arkansas Voters First – which supports a new system for redrawing Congressional and legislative districts and another proposal for open primaries and rank voting – and Arkansas Wins – which is seeking to expand casinos in the state by adding 16 new gaming licenses.

In letters to all three groups, Thurston argued that the groups’ paid canvassers did not meet a requirement of having “passed” criminal background checks. When supporters turned in petitions, they informed Thurston they had “acquired” background checks. Background checks are required of petition gatherers under Arkansas state law.

“It has been determined that acquiring a criminal background check is not the same as passing a criminal background check,” Thurston wrote.

“[N]one of the signatures solicited by the paid canvassers may be counted for any purpose,” he said in rejecting the petitions.

David Couch, attorney for Arkansas Voters First, tells Talk Business & Politics that Thurston’s office has incorrectly rejected the petitions.

“Every one of our canvassers passed a criminal background check prior to collecting signatures,” Couch said. “We certified when we submitted the canvasser list that we were in compliance with the applicable statute which includes the provision that each canvasser passed a background check. I have background checks on every single one.”

Taylor Riddle, a spokesperson for Arkansas Wins, said his group disagrees with the Secretary of State’s decision.

“We strongly disagree with the Secretary of State’s opinion and believe the information provided was submitted to them in accordance with applicable Arkansas law. Almost 100,000 voters signed the Arkansas Wins in 2020 petition with the belief that their signature would count. We believe that the Secretary of State’s opinion is not in accordance with Arkansas law and has jeopardized the civil rights of these Arkansas voters. Arkansas Wins in 2020 will be filing a Petition for Review with the Arkansas Supreme Court to address what we believe is an erroneous declaration of insufficiency,” Riddle said.

In answer to a follow-up inquiry, Riddle tells Talk Business & Politics that “every canvasser passed a background check and adequate documentation was provided to the Secretary of State for each canvasser.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court will be the venue for appeal in this case. It is currently weighing a similar argument in a legal case involving Safe Surgery Arkansas and its petitions, which seek to overturn Act 579 of the 2019 General Assembly.