Arkansas Term Limits and other plaintiffs filed suit Friday (May 28) in the federal Eastern District of Arkansas to overturn a new state law that limits who can gather signatures for citizen-led constitutional amendments and other initiatives.
Act 951 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, limits paid petitioners to state residents, which Arkansas Term Limits said in a press release is not required for any other political job or for petitions used to gather signatures for candidates to run. It passed with an emergency measure.
The ban applies to gathering signatures for citizen-led constitutional amendments; initiatives, which have the force of law; and referenda, which allow voters to rescind a law passed by the state Legislature.
The release said other residency laws have been unanimously struck down by the 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th federal Circuit Courts of Appeal. The ruling by the 10th Circuit case came in 2008 in an Oklahoma case, Yes on Term Limits, Inc. v. Savage.
A federal judge earlier this year enjoined a similar law passed in Maine. The judge ruled that circulating petitions is “core political speech.”
Another issue raised by the lawsuit is a list of 17 “disqualifying offenses” that prevent someone from gathering signatures, including a felony, violation of election laws, and various other offenses. The press release said it can apply to someone “found guilty of minor misdemeanors at any time in their lives, even many decades ago.”
“This lawsuit is necessary to prevent legislation . . . passed by a runaway and vindictive state legislature intent on preventing the citizens of Arkansas from exercising their right to bypass the power of unresponsive legislators,” the complaint said, according to the press release. “Many of the statutory provisions challenged in this action run brazenly afoul of clearly established precedent of the United States Supreme Court.”
Plaintiffs include Tim Jacob, chairman of Arkansas Term Limits; Liberty Initiative Fund, led by Jacob’s brother, Paul Jacob; U.S. Term Limits; Lawrence “Skip” Cook, a longtime term limits activist from Maumelle who managed the state’s first term limits campaign in 1992; Trent Pool, a Texas resident who wants to work as a petitioner in Arkansas; and Accelevate 2020, Pool’s firm.
The lawsuit names John Thurston, in his official capacity as secretary of state, as the defendant.
“Legislators have enacted unconstitutional hurdles to block our petition for stricter term limits, something voters strongly favor but politicians oppose,” Jacob said in the press release. “By challenging the legislature’s attack on our right to petition, we begin the process of restoring both term limits and this state’s cherished citizen initiative process.”
Among the law’s other provisions are a requirement that signature gatherers be American citizens and a ban on sponsors paying petitioners by the signature. Another section defines as a Class D felony a sponsor’s payment for petition signatures a canvasser did not witness.
The law contains a severability clause saying that if one part is declared invalid, the rest still stands.
It passed the House, 72-18, and the Senate, 27-5.