The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday (Aug. 27) tossed two ballot initiatives that would have enacted constitutional amendments creating a legislative redistricting commission and a system of open primaries and ranked choice voting.
In a decision written by Associate Justice Robin Wynne, the court agreed with Secretary of State John Thurston, who had disqualified both efforts because they did not verify that signature collectors had “passed” criminal background checks. Instead, both efforts had certified that they had “been timely acquired.”
“Simply acquiring or obtaining a background check is not sufficient under the plain language of the statute. The results of the background checks are not required to be filed with the Secretary of State, and the certification is the only assurance the public receives that the paid canvassers ‘passed’ background checks,” Wynne wrote.
In another decision written by Associate Justice Rhonda Wood, the court did not rule on another action where the State Board of Election Commissioners had rejected the ballot title for the open primary effort as being misleading. It declared that point moot.
Justice Jo Hart dissented in both cases. In the first, she wrote the majority “has disenfranchised more than 90,000 citizens.”
Retired Circuit Judge John Fogleman, a special master appointed by the court, had declared in a report Aug. 10 that the two efforts had failed to certify that signature collectors had “passed” a background check.
Arkansas Voters First would have created a nine-member citizens commission that would have determined districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature. The commission would have included three Republicans, three Democrats and three Arkansans who are not members of either party.
Congressional district lines are 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.
Open Primaries Arkansas would have changed the way candidates are elected. The top four candidates in the primary election would have advanced to the general election regardless of party affiliation, with space for a write-in candidate provided, and then voters would have ranked their preferences. If no candidate won a majority, the last-place candidate would have been eliminated and his or her next choice would have been awarded the votes. The process – known as ranked choice voting – would have continued until a candidate won a majority.
The groups had used the same signature collectors. Arkansas Voters First had collected $3.3 million, most of it from the Houston-based Action Now Initiative, which was founded by billionaires John and Laura Arnold. Action Now had donated $100,000 to Open Primaries Arkansas, according to campaign filings with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
Bonnie Miller, chair of Arkansas Voters First, and Stephanie Matthews, campaign manager for Open Primaries Arkansas, released statements saying the groups are “evaluating our legal options.” Both had submitted more than 150,000 signatures.
“The Supreme Court of Arkansas has taken deliberate steps to make it impossible for citizens to petition their government by applying unworkable standards to legally certify that canvassers have ‘passed’ federal background checks,” Miller said. “The Court had the opportunity to side with the people as the canvassers had clearly complied with the statute, but instead chose to refuse their rights by a thin technicality.”
Matthews said, “This is a dark day for our democracy, and yet another example of how extreme partisanship interferes with our inherent right as citizens to initiate change. More than 150,000 voters – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – signed the petition supporting Issue 5 from Open Primaries Arkansas to take the power away from the extreme wings of both parties and to give voters more choices in November.”
The group was opposed by Arkansans for Transparency. It had collected $206,000, including $60,000 from the Republican Party of Arkansas, $7,500 from Cotton for Senate, $7,500 from the Republican Majority Fund, and $80,000 from members of the Rockefeller family.
Jonelle Fulmer and County Judge Joseph Wood, co-chairs of Arkansans for Transparency, released a statement saying, “We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to keep these deceitful measures off the November ballot. This is a huge victory for Arkansans in our continued fight against billionaire-backed, out-of-state liberals who want nothing more than to wholly manipulate our system of democracy. We’re also grateful to Senator Tom Cotton for his leadership and for raising awareness about the dangerous consequences of these amendments. Arkansas voters deserve transparency at the ballot box, and that’s exactly what we’re getting with today’s decision.”
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb released a statement saying, “Today was a good day for transparency, accountability, and voters here in Arkansas. Out of state billionaires and the Democratic Party of Arkansas have tried to buy their way to intentionally deceitful ballot measures designed to fool voters. They would have made Arkansas the home of the most ridiculous California style jungle primary, ranked choice voting, and redistricting measures in the nation. Thankfully, this thin facade has been stopped by the Supreme Court of Arkansas, as it would have been defeated at the ballot box.”