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story.lead_photo.caption Movers Theo Reed (left) and Joe Mathews unload boxes of signatures from Arkansas Voters First on Monday, July 6, 2020, at the secretary of state’s office in Little Rock. The group was seeking a constitutional amendment that would establish an independent redistricting commission. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

In the Nov. 3 election, Arkansas voters will determine the fate of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for citizen-led groups and the Legislature in the future to qualify such proposals for the ballot.

Issue 3 also would make it tougher for citizen-led groups to qualify proposed initiated acts and referendums for the ballot, too.

Arkansas is one of 15 states that allow citizens the ability to collect voter signatures to put a proposed state law, constitutional amendment or referendum on the ballot, according to the University of Arkansas System Agriculture Division's Public Policy Center.

That petitioning ability was first put in place in 1910, although it was not cemented in law until 1925 when the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld Amendment 7 of 1920. That's the constitutional amendment that spelled out the citizen initiative process, the Public Policy Center said in its summary on Issue 3.

Under the constitution, the Legislature also can put proposals before voters. Lawmakers can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments for the general election ballot. They also can also refer a fourth amendment if it deals with legislative salaries.

Issue 3 was proposed by the General Assembly during the 2019 regular session.

Among other provisions, Issue 3 would require initiative or referendum petitions to have a certain percentage of valid signatures of registered voters from each of 45 counties. The designated percentage would be based on the votes in each county in the most recent gubernatorial election.

The constitution now sets that minimum at 15 of Arkansas' 75 counties.

SIGNATURES

IN 45 COUNTIES

Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, and Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, sponsored the proposal that's backed by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Farm Bureau and the state Republican Party.

Pitsch said voters should approve Issue 3 because "we have changed our constitution umpteen times over the last few elections."

He said changing the constitution should be a slow and methodical process.

"The majority of those came from the Legislature, [but] we need to make it tougher as well," he said. Most of the ballot measures from citizen-led groups in recent elections have been largely financed with out-of-state funds, he said.

"I don't want this to be about ideology," Pitsch said in an interview. "I want this to be about protecting the constitution. ... People say you can't have citizen-led initiatives [under Issue 3]. Sure you can. Absolutely sure you can. You have to go over half of the counties."

Kristin Foster, chairwoman of the Protect AR Rights committee that opposes Issue 3, said voters should reject Issue 3 because the current process for qualifying ballot measures is solid and "it gives people a voice at the ballot box."

Issue 3 would make it virtually impossible for citizen-led groups to get measures on the ballot, and it would prevent the type of policies enacted through citizen-led initiatives such as raising the state's minimum wage and improving ethics laws, she said.

Medical marijuana was legalized through an initiated constitutional amendment, as was establishing full-fledged casino gambling.

"Arkansas has a long history of people having power in our government. Our state motto is the people rule. Issue 3 is a blatant attempt to change that and to say the politicians rule," Foster said.

Foster said that among the most onerous parts of Issue 3 is the part about increasing from the current 15 to 45 the minimum number of counties where petition drives have to gather a certain percentage of signatures of registered voters.

"Making that exceedingly difficult doesn't protect our process," she said. "It just keeps people out."

"We were finding people writing issues for their petition drives and they were only marketing ... in small pockets of our state," Pitsch said. "I have heard the rural vs. urban argument associated with Issue 3."

LEGISLATIVE VOTE

THRESHOLD HIGHER

The proposed amendment also would eliminate the 30-day cure period, which gives proposal backers more time to gather signatures if the submitted petitions fall short on valid signatures, but contain at least 75% of the required number.

"It is just another attempt to keep people from having a say in this process," Foster said. "Everyday Arkansans should have a voice in creating policy and laws in our state. Issue 3 would just limit that to politicians and special interest groups."

"That's probably a reach by those who hate the idea" of Issue 3, Pitsch said. "We made it tough on the politicians."

Issue 3 would require a three-fifths vote of legislators -- up from the current simple majority vote -- to put proposals on the ballot.

That would be at least 60 votes in the 100-member House of Representatives and at least 21 in the 35-member Senate.

Such proposals are in the form of resolutions, which require approval of both chambers but no action by the governor.

Pitsch noted the proposed amendment to overhaul term limits for state lawmakers wouldn't be on the ballot if Issue 3 had been in effect in the 2019 regular session. The House voted 51-26 to refer the term limits proposal to voters; the Senate voted 26-5 to refer it.

OTHER CHANGES

The proposed amendment also would:

• Require initiative petitions for statewide measures to be filed with the secretary of state by Jan. 15 of the year they would be voted on. They are now required to be filed by four months before the election.

• Require a challenge to the sufficiency of a statewide petition to be filed no later than April 15 of the year of the general election in which it shall be voted on.

Foster said many of the signatures for ballot measures are now collected in the spring and summer months at community events and moving the signature deadline to January would put that at a time that people are not even thinking about what is going on the ballot later in that year.

Pitsch said signatures can be collected in January just as easily in other times of the year and community events are held throughout the year.

[READ: Full text of Issue No. 3 on November ballot » arkansasonline.com/1018issue3/]

"I am an economic developer," he said. "I tell people you can build outdoors in Arkansas year around and you can stand out there and collect signatures up until that [Jan. 15] deadline."

Pitch said requiring challenges to the sufficiency of a statewide petition to be filed by April 15 will allow the Arkansas Supreme Court to make earlier rulings on whether the proposals are on the ballot.

Under the current system, the high court sometimes rejects proposals after ballots have been printed.

Issue 3 also would eliminate a requirement that constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature be published in at least one newspaper in each county where a newspaper is published for six months ahead of the general election.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

Instead, these proposed amendments would be published in at least one newspaper in each county where a newspaper is published "in a manner provided by law" ahead of the general election under Issue 3.

Foster said these proposed amendments could be published one time in advance of the general election under Issue 3 and "that issue by itself should show what a problem this is."

Pitsch said that part of Issue 3 is aimed at providing more information, not less, about these proposals.

Issue 3 would become effective Jan. 1.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday, "I will vote for Issue 3 because we need to have a higher threshold of support before a constitutional amendment gets on the ballot."

Editor's note: A report on Issue 1 will be in Tuesday's edition.

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