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Arkansas' general election ballot is being defined in part by covid-19.

The disease -- or, more precisely, the desire by most to avoid infection -- significantly interrupted the signature collection process for proposed ballot issues.

The result will be a simpler ballot with fewer issues than might have been presented to Arkansas voters this year.

Exactly what will be on the ballot is yet to be determined. There are still procedural hurdles and court challenges ahead for the issues that have survived the process so far.

Covid-19 does get partial credit for knocking a number of other proposals out of consideration.

Gone, for example, are efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, to repeal authorization for casino gaming in Pope County, to allow coin-operated amusement machines and to provide for recall of statewide elected officials.

Those issues and more were among a dozen initiatives circulated for a time this year.

Their backers came up short in collecting the number of signatures needed to amend the state's constitution or to refer a law directly to the people.

Whatever their issues, petitioners were sorely hampered this year by covid-19.

As this state's many public festivals and celebrations shut down to limit the spread of the virus, traditional opportunities to collect large numbers of signatures disappeared, too.

Avoiding the virus effectively meant avoiding the petition-pushing canvassers.

Monday was the deadline to submit petitions for the 2020 ballot. Backers of only three more proposals secured a shot at getting their issues on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

These issues could join three proposed amendments referred by the Legislature and a referendum petition already certified to force a public vote on a 2019 state law expanding the practice of optometry in Arkansas.

The Legislature referred amendments:

• Continuing a one-half percent sales and use tax for state highways and bridges and for similar city and county infrastructure,

• Altering term limits for the Legislature; and

• Changing the citizen initiative and referendum process.

In addition, the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee earlier this year submitted more than the 53,491 signatures required to certify its proposed referendum on Act 579, passed by the Legislature in 2019 to enable optometrists to do certain procedures previously done only by ophthalmologists.

All but one of those four proposals are tied up in court challenges and may or may not make the ballot.

Anyway, Arkansas voters will face no more than seven statewide ballot questions in November, if all pending ballot issues are eventually certified to the ballot and survive any legal challenge.

The Arkansas Voters First committee said it submitted more than 98,500 signatures on Monday.

A total of 89,151 signatures of registered voters are required to qualify a proposed constitutional amendment for the ballot. The number represents 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in 2018. Canvassers also must collect signatures of at least 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in at least 15 of the state's 75 counties.

Arkansas Voters First is petitioning for creation of a nine-member citizens' redistricting commission to redraw Arkansas' congressional and legislative district boundaries every 10 years.

Congressional districts are now drawn by the state Legislature after each federal decennial census. State legislative districts are determined by the state Board of Apportionment, which is made up of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

The proposed nine-member redistricting commission would be comprised of three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents selected by an appointed judicial panel.

The Open Primaries Arkansas committee, which said it submitted just shy of 95,000 signatures, proposes that candidates for Congress, the Legislature and state constitutional offices run in an open primary rather than separate party primaries.

In each race, the four candidates with the most votes in the open primary would advance to the general election. Voters would rank their choices among the general election candidates. If the leading candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, he or she would be elected without need for a runoff. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and next-choice votes would determine which candidates would be in instant runoffs for the covered offices until the race is decided.

The last of the proposed amendments came from the Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. committee, which reported turning in just over 97,000 signatures Monday.

The amendment would authorize the Arkansas Racing Commission to issue 16 more casino licenses across the state.

It specifies a dozen counties where one casino would be allowed and two counties where two new casinos could be permitted. It also names the companies that would get the licenses.

Since each of the three new proposals were backed by more than enough as-yet-unverified signatures, each could qualify for an additional 30 days to collect more.

Now we wait to see which of the proposals need the extra time to make the cut and survive the sure-to-follow legal challenges.

That "simpler" ballot, it turns out, could prove quite controversial and far from simple.

Brenda Blagg is a freelance columnist and longtime journalist in Northwest Arkansas. Email her at [email protected]

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