In part one of our overview of the 2013 Arkansas legislative session, we posted a brief explanation detailing much of the overall activity at the legislature. Then, yesterday, we published our new e-book that discusses Family Council’s wins and losses this session. One loss that we didn’t highlight in the book was our hard fight against SJR16. We wanted to give this particular subject its own blog post. You can read our story about SJR16 below.

SJR 16, sponsored in the 2013 Arkansas Legislative Session by Sen. Bill Sample (R-Hot Springs) and Rep. John Vines (D-Hot Springs), is a proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution. Every legislative session the Arkansas Legislature can refer a maximum of three measures to a vote of the people at the next general election. They chose to refer SJR 16 which, if passed, will make it more difficult for citizens to circulate petitions and place measures on the ballot. This proposed State Constitutional Amendment will appear on the ballot statewide in November 2014.

SJR 16 was promoted by Arkansas gambling interests who are afraid that out-of-state gambling operations may come to Arkansas and use the petition process to place a State Constitutional Amendment on the ballot that would affect the Arkansas gambling monopoly currently enjoyed by Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis. In addition, other moneyed interests support SJR 16 out of concern that citizen groups may pass a constitutional amendment that would affect their business profits.

Supporters of SJR 16 touted it as a way to clean up the petition process by reducing petition fraud. However this measure does not mention fraud, has no penalties for fraud, and does nothing to encourage the prosecution of fraud. Rather than addressing fraud, SJR 16 only makes the petition process more difficult for citizens trying to put an issue on the ballot.

The passage of SJR 16 would increase the number of signatures a sponsor would have to gather in order to place an issue on the ballot by eliminating options for correcting technical errors on petitions after the initial check by the Secretary of State. Currently, 78,133 valid signatures are required to place a proposed State Constitutional Amendment on the ballot. In July before the November election, each petition sponsor submits petition signatures of registered voters to the Secretary of State for verification. If at least 78,133 signatures are valid, the Secretary of State certifies the issue for the ballot. If errors result in the number of valid signatures falling below 78,133, the Secretary of State advises the sponsor of the petition about any deficiencies in the petitions and the sponsor has 30 days to correct problems with the petition. During this time period the sponsor can gather additional signatures as a way of correcting deficiencies.

Under SJR 16, no 30-day correction period would be granted if the number of valid signatures falls below 75% of the required number. This means that no 30-day correction period will be allowed if fewer than 58,600 signatures are initially ruled valid by the Secretary of State. Typically petition sponsors already have to gather about 100,000 signatures to ensure that at least 78,133 will be valid. Already 90% of statewide volunteer petition drives fail, mostly because they can’t get the required number of signatures. SJR 16 will add more work to an already difficult process.

Problems with notaries, canvasser errors, and other correctable, technical issues routinely result in the disqualification of entire pages of signatures. Even the most conscientious petition sponsors sometimes see thousands of petition signatures disqualified for “technical” reasons. In 1988, petitions were submitted for Amendment 68 (The Unborn Child Amendment), and then-Secretary of State Bill McCuen declared 100% of the signatures invalid. Citing technical problems with precinct numbers, he gave the petition sponsors 30 days to correct the problem. The sponsors corrected the problem and the measure was placed on the ballot and was passed by voters. If SJR 16 had been in effect in 1988, no 30 day cure period would have been allowed. SJR 16 gives the Secretary of State additional power to restrict the rights of citizens to place measures on the ballot.

A large Little Rock law firm employs attorneys who specialize in using Arkansas’ existing laws against citizens trying to place issues on the ballot. The passage of SJR 16 will provide them another tool to use when the moneyed interests they represent need to put a damper on the rights of the people. If SJR 16 becomes part of our State Constitution, it can only be changed with a statewide vote of the people.

The petition process provides citizens a way to pass laws without interference from the Arkansas Legislature and other elected officials. The petition process is government by the people in its most direct form.

Supporters of SJR 16 will likely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a political advertising campaign to persuade people to vote for SJR 16. Under the guise of cleaning up the petition process by preventing fraud they will promote their own self interests.