Lawmakers to eye refining signature-gathering for initiatives


LITTLE ROCK — Some officials are preparing to look at balloting beyond Nov. 6.

Three days after the general election next month, lawmakers will meet to begin a study of possible changes in the way citizens go about putting initiatives on the ballot.

The study by the House and Senate committees on state agencies and governmental affairs comes in the wake of allegations earlier this year of irregularities in signature-gathering for a pair of ballot proposals.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, requested the study after the secretary of state’s office determined that 70 percent of signatures submitted in support of one measure to raise the state severance tax and another to allow casino gambling were invalid.

Election officials had expressed concern about the low number of verified signatures and a number of irregularities, including multiple signatures by the same person and suspected forged signatures. In one case, one person’s signature was found at 40 separate times.

Key said any changes to the ballot initiative process recommended as a result of the study would be minor and be limited to rules on signature-gathering.

“It’s not going to be a complete overhaul,” he said.

Article 5 of the state constitution guarantees citizens the right to propose legislative measures.

Representatives for Secretary of State Mark Martin and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel are expected to attend the Nov. 9 meeting, along with a number of concerned citizens, including Little Rock lawyer David Couch, who worked with three different citizen groups this year trying to get proposals on the ballot.

Doug Matayo, Martin’s chief deputy, told the legislative committees in August that the secretary of state’s office would have recommendations to lawmakers later this year.

Last week, Martin spokesman Alex Reed said those recommendations would not be finalized until after the general election. He said any decision on whether to ask state police to investigate suspected canvassing improprieties also wait until after Nov. 6.

Sheffield Nelson, the former gas company executive who spearheaded a severance tax hike ballot proposal where a number of signature irregularities were found, said in July that he welcomed an investigation and legislation to improve the process.

Nelson did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Friday.

Couch said last week he plans to suggest that lawmakers consider passing legislation that would allow canvassers onto “semi-public” property such as business parking lots. Currently, people collecting signatures on business parking lots often are threatened with arrest for trespassing, he said.

Couch said Massachusetts has such a law, and that the California Supreme Court ruled canvassers could legally collect signatures on semi-public property . He said California allows canvassers access to parking lots for a certain number of days before the deadline to turn in petitions.

“The problem now (in Arkansas) is, you’ve got people trying to get signatures in a really confined space,” he said. “If the deadline is, say July 4, then if you have from Jan. 1 to July 4 as a semi-open access, I think it will do away with a lot of problems.”

Couch originally worked with Regnat Populus 2012 and the Better Ethics Now Committee trying to get an ethics reform measure on the ballot. Supporters of that proposal were unable to get the necessary signatures by the July 6 deadline.

Couch said the signature collection firm supporters hired was inexperienced and led them to believe they could get the signatures in time.

“They didn’t know what they were doing, we didn’t know what we were doing,” Couch said. “We trusted them and it’s not that they didn’t try … they just didn’t have the experience that we thought they had and they just didn’t get the job done.”

Couch said the Regnat Populus 2012 and the Better Ethics Now Committee have submitted a ballot title and name of an ethics measure to the attorney general for consideration for the 2014 general election.

Couch also worked with Nelson on his proposal to raise the severance tax on natural gas from 5 percent to 7 percent, but the signature collection process snagged when the person hired to run it brought in untrained people to gather the signatures.

“She was just paying people off the street to go and they were sitting around signing everybody’s name to the petitions,” Couch said, adding they were getting paid $2 a signature. “There was one person that signed the petition 40 times.”

Couch said some professional canvassers travel the country and are skilled and successful in gathering signatures of registered voters.

Couch later agreed to help Arkansans for Compassionate Care with signature gathering for a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical use in Arkansas. That group was successful and the proposed initiated act will appear as Issue 5 on the general election ballot.