Happy medium missing in initiative process


Often in car accidents, it’s not the original misjudgment that causes the harm; it’s the overcorrection for the mistake that causes injury.

It can be the same case for legislation. Consider the corrective action taken by the 89th General Assembly to what are politely called “irregularities” in the signature-gathering for two 2012 ballot proposals.

Citizens in Arkansas have the right, granted in Article 5 of the state constitution, to propose legislative measures. In practice, citizens wishing to do so jump a fair number of hurdles before a proposal gets on the ballot, including getting a ballot title certified and collecting thousands of signatures from people who say they want a chance to vote on the issue.

In advance of the 2012 election, the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office determined that 70 percent of signatures submitted in support of placing on the ballot a proposal to increase the state’s severance tax and a proposal to legalize casino gambling were invalid.

Among the “irregularities” were suspected forged signatures and multiple — more than 40 — signatures from the same person, according to an Arkansas News Bureau report that was published in October 2012.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, requested an interim study into the issue before the 2013 legislative session started. At that time, Sen. Key said he anticipated minor changes in rules on signature-gathering.

“It’s not going to be a complete overhaul,” he told the news bureau.

Flash forward a year and a half, and that’s not the way Paul Spencer, president of Regnat Populus, and Neil Sealy, executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, see it.

Mr. Spencer and Mr. Sealy have challenged the restrictions added to the ballot initiative process by the 2013 Legislature.

Represented by the Arkansas Public Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, the two challenge the constitutionality of Act 1413, believing it presents a sometimes insurmountable hurdle for citizen petitions.

The new law requires, among other things, that the name, address and recent photo of every paid canvasser be provided to the secretary of state; that an entire page of signatures be invalidated if part of it is defective; that canvassers sign an affidavit stating their addresses are correct; that all signers print their own names, addresses and birth dates; that a canvasser who prints that information on behalf of a signer is committing a Class A misdemeanor.

Last week, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan expressed her agreement with Mr. Spencer and Mr. Sealy by granting a preliminary injunction to stop the secretary of state from enforcing the new law.

In an 11-page ruling, Judge McGowan stated, “The effects of Act 1413 are crushing to the citizens rather than the special interests who always seem to have the money to further their goals.”

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office said it was considering its options in the wake of the decision, and speculated the case ultimately would be decided in the state’s Supreme Court.

It’s a case of overcorrection. Two well-financed ballot initiatives used canvassers who, allegedly, took shortcuts with the process. Now, true grassroots organizations with limited resources have found the rules for getting an issue on the ballot are, in Judge McGowan’s words, “crushing.”

It should be possible to find a middle ground that discourages lazy or fraudulent behavior without making the democratic process impossible. It should be.

— Southwest Times Record