In the general election, Arkansas voters will decide whether to join Florida in requiring approval by 60% of voters rather than a simple majority of voters for passage of a proposed constitutional amendment.
Illinois requires the approval of either 60% of those voting on the proposed constitutional amendment itself or a majority of those voting in the election as a whole, according to to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The proposed constitutional amendment on Arkansas' general election ballot would increase the requirement for voter approval of proposed constitutional amendments and initiated acts from a majority of the voters to 60% of the votes. If voters approve the proposal, it would become effective Jan. 1, 2023.
It's Issue 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot. Early voting starts Monday.
In the 2021 regular session, the Republican-dominated Legislature referred the proposed constitutional amendment to voters in this year's general election. State Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, proposed the ballot measure through House Joint Resolution 1015.
Ray said voters should cast their ballots for Issue 2 in order to defend Arkansas' Constitution.
"It would strengthen our Arkansas constitution by providing that there is genuine consensus among voters when we take the important and substantive step of amending our state constitution or passing an initiated act," he said
"Our state constitution is entirely too easy to amend, and we should not amend it in sort of a willy-nilly fashion four, five, six times every two years like we currently do," Ray said.
Bonnie Miller of Fayetteville, chairwoman of the Protect AR Constitution ballot committee that opposes Issue 2, said voters should vote against Issue 2 because its takes power from the people.
"Issue 2 would end ballot measures as we know them, allows minority rule, and gives lobbyists more power to make backroom deals and ignore the will of the people," she said in a written statement. "Arkansas voters should decide on the issues that matter most to us, not politicians and lobbyists."
Miller, who also is president of the League of Women Voters of Arkansas, said Issue 2 applies to laws proposed by citizens as well as to proposed constitutional amendments.
"Voters should absolutely vote against Issue 2 to protect direct democracy," she said.
Ray said the Arkansas Constitution has been amended 102 times.
"It reads like a book of statutes, and when you compare that to our U.S. Constitution, which we all love and revere, it's only been amended 27 times, even though it has been around 86 years longer," he said.
Ray said the majority of the state's constitutional amendments that have been passed in modern history have been referred to voters by the Legislature and Issue 2 applies to measures referred by the Legislature and citizens.
"I believe that a lot of amendments that have been referred by the Legislature were bad ideas," he said. "Part of the reason that I ran for office in the first place was because the Legislature at the time put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot and wrote it into our state constitution. I disagreed strongly with that. I could also point to the so-called ethics amendment that was written by a state senator that's now serving time in federal prison."
In November 2020, voters approved Amendment 101 to permanently extend a 0.5% sales tax to raise money for highways and roads. In November 2012, voters approved Amendment 91 to levy a 0.5% sales tax to raise money for highways and roads for a 10-year period.
In 2014, voters approved Amendment 94 to extend the periods that state senators and representatives could serve in the Legislature, shift authority for setting salaries for state-elected officials from the Legislature to a citizens salary commission; prohibit corporate and union campaign contributions to candidates; bar lobbyists from providing certain gifts, such as meals and drinks in one-on-one meetings, to lawmakers; and extend the one-year waiting period to two years before former lawmakers can register as lobbyists for private clients.
Then-Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, proposed the constitutional amendment before he opted against seeking reelection in 2016. In 2018, Woods was sentenced to 18 years and four months in federal prison and three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay back $1.6 million in restitution, after he was convicted of charges related to public corruption over allegations he solicited and accepted kickbacks for the distribution of government funds.
Ray said the state's initiative process is susceptible to abuse by "big-money, out-of-state interests that want to take advantage of our lenient ballot access laws and hijack that process to essentially buy an amendment to our state constitution."
But Miller said "the proponents of Issue 2 are the ones trying to amend our constitution because they didn't like it when Arkansas voters used ballot measures to create term limits, establish ethics rules they have to follow, and take some of the money out of politics."
"They're trying to change the rules of the game and take power away from the people," she said.
The overwhelming majority of constitutional amendments have been referred directly by the General Assembly, Miller said. If the Legislature wants to limit the number of constitutional amendments, then the easier way to do that would be to reduce the number of amendments the Legislature is allowed to refer each session to only one, she said.
The process by which the people can propose an initiated amendment is extremely difficult, and in the past two election cycles only one citizen-initiated amendment has made it to the ballot versus six from the Legislature, she said.
But Ray said "there are folks who feel like that because they can't win elections at the ballot box that they are going to try and change the rules of the game, basically stack the deck in their favor, by trying to do things like ranked-choice voting, jungle primaries or so-called independent redistricting commissions; all of those things have been attempted in the last couple of years."
In August 2020, the Arkansas Supreme Court stripped from the general election ballot the Open Primaries Arkansas committee's proposed constitutional amendment that would have switched the state's primary elections, in which candidates vie for their party's nomination, to a system in which partisan candidates compete against one another in the same primary and then the top four advance to a general election to be decided by ranked-choice voting.
At that time, the high court also yanked from the ballot the Arkansas Voters First committee's proposed constitutional amendment that would have placed redistricting of new legislative and congressional district boundaries in the hands of a new commission made up of members of the Republican and Democratic parties.
In a 6-1 ruling, the state Supreme Court disqualified both measures on technical grounds, finding fault with the wording that the groups behind the measures used to certify that their paid canvassers met all the requirements to collect signatures. The groups said they "acquired" criminal background checks for each of their canvassers, but Secretary of State John Thurston said the groups needed to certify that the canvassers "passed" the background checks, and the high court agreed with the secretary of state.
The state Board of Apportionment, comprising the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state, redraws legislative district boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census, while the Legislature redraws congressional district boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. census.
"The Left in Arkansas has realized that they can't advance their agenda through the normal lawmaking process because it is out of step with voters," Ray said, "but what they can do is to raise a ton of money to pay an out-of-state canvassing firm to gather signatures, put an issue on the ballot and then in the last 60 to 90 days to spend millions and millions of dollars to promote on slick produced television ads to mislead voters, to deceive them with poorly worded ballot titles, in an effort to temporarily convince them that something is a good idea."
Miller said direct democracy is nonpartisan and has historically been used by individuals from both major political parties.
"What's amazing about the ballot measure process is that it has broad bipartisan support," she said.
"Folks worried about out-of-state money buying amendments should vote against Issue 2 because it would lock ordinary Arkansans out of the process," Miller said. "If Issue 2 passes, only out-of-state billionaires could afford to propose laws and amendments, giving more power to lobbyists, special interests and politicians."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday, "The constitution should not be changed easily.
"We should increase the threshold of changing the state's governing document," the Republican governor said in a written statement.
Earlier this month, Republican gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she plans to vote for this proposed constitutional amendment.
"The constitution is sacred, and it should be hard to change it," she said. "The voters should have a say in that, but I think increasing that percentage is something that we should be supportive of across the board."
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington said they opposed this proposed constitutional amendment.
Florida requires any proposed constitutional amendment, whether initiated or referred by the Legislature, to be approved by at least 60% of those voting on the measure for approval, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Illinois requires passage by three-fifths of those voting on a proposed constitutional amendment for approval or a majority of those voting in the election, the conference said.
In Nevada, a proposed initiative constitutional amendment needs a majority to pass but must be approved in two consecutive elections, according to the conference.
Two states require supermajorities for laws that seek to alter specific topics. Utah requires 60 percent approval for laws that alter hunting and fishing, and Washington requires 60 percent approval for laws authorizing gambling or lotteries, the conference reported.
BALLOT COMMITTEE FINANCE REPORTS
Several ballot committees for or against Issue 2 are registered with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, according to the commission's website.
The Protect AR Constitution ballot committee reported raising $657,105 in contributions and spending $33.51 through Sept. 30.
The committee's largest reported contribution is $450,000 from the nonprofit group The Fairness Project in Washington, D.C.
Protect AR Constitution's other contributions include $150,000 from the nonprofit group Article IV of New York, $35,000 from the nonprofit group Unite America of Denver, and $21,105 from the nonprofit group League of Women Voters of Arkansas.
[ISSUE 2: Read the ballot title for proposed constitutional amendment » arkansasonline.com/1023issue2/]
The Fairness Project ballot committee reported a $450,000 contribution to the Protect AR Constitution committee and an in-kind, staff time contribution of $2,437 to the Protect AR Constitution committee, and the Article IV ballot committee reported a $150,000 contribution to the Protect AR Constitution committee.
In 2018, The Fairness Project contributed $100,000 to the Arkansans For A Fair Wage committee that promoted a voter-approved initiated act that gradually raised the state's minimum wage from $8.50 per hour to $11 per hour in 2021.
According to The Fairness Project's website, "We've won 24 of our 25 ballot measures to raise wages, stop predatory payday lenders, expand health care access, secure more paid time off and other life-changing policies for more than 18 million people."
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel committee reported receiving $500 in contributions and spending $7,711.29 through Sept. 30.
The Defend AR Constitution ballot committee, chaired by Ray, reported receiving no contributions and spending no money through Sept. 30. Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, is the committee's treasurer.
Ray said, "We have since been raising money and we are continuing to raise support for our ballot committee, and we are running ads across the state right now."