Lawsuit challenges new restrictions on petition process


LITTLE ROCK — A lawsuit filed Thursday challenges the constitutionality of a state law that imposes new restrictions on the process of gathering signatures in support of a ballot initiative.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Law Center filed the suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on behalf of Paul Spencer, president of Regnat Populus, and Neil Sealy, executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations.

The suit alleges that Act 1413 of 2013 “places unwarranted and unconstitutional restrictions on the ability of citizens to circulate petitions and will prevent the placement of initiatives on the ballot for the general, statewide election in November of 2014.”

Specifically, the suit challenges provisions of the law requiring that the name, address and a recent photo of every paid canvasser be provided to the secretary of state; that every paid canvasser swear an oath stating he or she has not been convicted of certain offenses; that an entire page of signatures be invalidated if part of it is defective; that every canvasser sign an affidavit stating that his or her address is correct and attach it to the petition; that every signer print his name, address and birth date; and that a canvasser who prints a name, address or birth date for a signer is committing a Class A misdemeanor.

The suit asks for a declaration that Act 1413 is unconstitutional and invalid, and for an injunction barring its enforcement.

“This act put restrictions that weren’t in existence before to make it almost impossible for anyone to gather a significant number of signatures to get an initiated act on the ballot, unless they have a tremendous amount of money to be able to afford it,” ACLU attorney Bettina Brownstein said Thursday.

The citizens’ group Regnat Populus has submitted to Attorney General Dustin McDaniel the wording of a proposed initiated act that would prohibit corporate spending in Arkansas elections. Sealy has been involved in a number of ballot initiatives in past election cycles.

The Legislature approved Act 1413 after 70 percent of signatures submitted to the secretary of state’s office in support of two ballot proposals were ruled invalid. Lawmakers said at the time they wanted to address misconduct by signature gatherers.

Spencer said he believes the act had another purpose, noting that its sponsor, Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, represents a district that includes Southland Greyhound Park. The park’s parent company has funded opposition to efforts to put casino gambling on the ballot in Arkansas.

“We firmly believe it was financially motivated,” Spencer said of Act 1413.

Ingram did not immediately return a call Thursday afternoon seeking comment.