Secretary of State says proposals don't qualify for election

LITTLE ROCK -- Because of an error regarding criminal background checks, the petitions for three proposed constitutional amendments -- on redistricting, elections and casino licenses -- are insufficient to qualify for the Nov. 3 general election ballot, Secretary of State John Thurston announced Tuesday.

But spokesmen for the committees collecting signatures on petitions for the proposals sharply criticized the Republican secretary of state's rulings.

Thurston explained his decisions in separate letters dated Tuesday.

Letters went to attorney David Couch, representing the Arkansas Voters First committee collecting signatures for a proposed amendment changing the method for congressional and legislative redistricting and another creating ranked-choice voting for most state office elections.

The third letter went to attorney David Wooten, representing the Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. committee, which collected signatures for the proposal to authorize 16 more casinos in Arkansas.


In his two letters to Couch, Thurston said the list of paid canvassers who solicited signatures for his two petitions was accompanied by the following certification: "On behalf of the sponsors, this statement and submission of names serves as certification that a statewide Arkansas State Police background check, as wells as, 50-state criminal background check have been timely acquired in the 30 days before the first day the Paid canvasser begins to collect signatures as required by Act 1104 of 2017."

Thurston wrote in his two letters to Couch was determined acquiring a criminal background check isn't the same as passing a criminal background check.

"Because Arkansas Voters First did not comply with Ark. Code Ann. 7-9-601(b)(3), none of the signatures solicited by the paid canvassers may be counted for any purpose," he said. "Thus, the petition is insufficient to qualify for the November 3, 2020 general election ballot."

Thurston said there may be other as-yet undetermined reasons the petition may not be sufficient, but his office is barred under state law from counting the submitted signatures.

George Shelton, a spokesman for the Arkansas Voters First committee, said Tuesday night, "Sadly this fits a pattern of behavior from the State of Arkansas.

"They are delaying and appealing through the courts in an attempt to disenfranchise almost 200,000 Arkansans who signed petitions and to deprive the 2 million Arkansas voters of exercising their rights," he said, referring to the number of signatures collected by the committee for its proposed ballot measures.

"They know voters in Arkansas overwhelmingly want an independent commission that cuts lobbyists and party bosses out of the redistricting process. They know that when we get this issue on the ballot, voters will reject the status quo and vote yes to give voters the power to decide how we are represented," Shelton said.

The Arkansas Voters First's proposed redistricting constitutional amendment would shift the authority for redrawing the boundaries of legislative districts from the state Board of Apportionment -- comprising the governor, attorney general and secretary of state -- to a nine-member independent commission comprising three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

The proposal also would shift authority for redrawing the boundaries of the state's congressional districts from the state Legislature to the nine-member commission. The boundaries of legislative and congressional districts are redrawn once a decade, after the Census.

Stephanie Matthews, campaign manager for the Open Primaries Arkansas committee promoting the proposal on ranked-choice voting, said Tuesday night of Thurston's rulings, "These are just more legal tricks by the party bosses and special interests to keep voters from having a real choice in our elections."

Under the ranked choice voting proposal, candidates for Congress, the General Assembly and constitutional offices would run in an open primary against other candidates for those offices, regardless of party.

In each race, the four candidates with the most votes in the open primary would then advance to the general election.

In the general election, voters would then rank their preferred candidates one through four. If no candidate wins an outright majority in that election, then the candidate with the fewest voters would be eliminated, and those voters' second and third choices would be added to the remaining candidates' tallies until someone obtained the majority threshold.

But a spokesman for the Arkansans for Transparency committee, which opposes the redistricting and ranked-choice proposals, said Thurston's decisions are "part of the process."

Transparency committee spokesman J.R. Davis said, "It doesn't change our focus to provide transparency to the voters of Arkansas." The group contends the proposals are an attempt by out-of-state interests to change Arkansas and the way its voters decide elections.

Through the end of May, the Arkansas Voters First committee reported raising $1.8 million and spending $484,849, leaving a balance of $1.3 million. The largest contributor to the committee is the Houston, Texas-based Action Now Initiative LLC, which contributed $1.8 million. The Action Now Initiative seeks to improve the lives of individuals through political advocacy, according to its website.


In his letter dated Tuesday to Wooten, Thurston said the list of paid canvassers soliciting signatures for Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc.'s proposed casino amendment was accompanied by the following certification: "In accordance with Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-601, please find the Arkansas Wins Paid Canvasser List, along with Federal Background Checks, Arkansas State Background Checks and Paid Canvasser Statements."

Because Arkansas Wins in 2020 Inc. didn't comply with Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-601(b)(3) by certifying that its paid canvassers had passed a criminal background check, none of the signatures they solicited may be counted, Thurston said.

"Thus, the petition is insufficient to qualify for the November 3, 2020 general election ballot," Thurston wrote. As with the other proposals, Thurston wrote there may be other reasons why the petitions are insufficient.

Taylor Riddle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Wins, said, "We strongly disagree with the Secretary of State's opinion and believe the information provided was submitted to them in accordance with applicable Arkansas law.

"Almost 100,000 voters signed the Arkansas Wins in 2020 petition with the belief that their signature would count," he said. "We believe that the Secretary of State's opinion is not in accordance with Arkansas law and has jeopardized the civil rights of these Arkansas voters. Arkansas Wins in 2020 will be filing a Petition for Review with the Arkansas Supreme Court to address what we believe is an erroneous declaration of insufficiency."

Arkansas Wins's proposal would authorize the state Racing Commission to issue one casino license apiece to different companies in Benton, Boone, Chicot, Garland, Greene, Jefferson, Johnson, Miller, Nevada, Sebastian, St. Francis and Washington counties, and two licenses in Crittenden and Pulaski counties to different companies.

The commission already has authorized four casinos under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was approved by voters in 2018. Three casinos are in Hot Springs, West Memphis and Pine Bluff. The fourth license, for Pope County, has yet to be issued.

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