Ballot initiative 3: make an informed decision

Unless struck down by the courts, ballot initiatives appear with only their popular name and ballot title, making an informed decision on complex issues challenging for most voters. This third installment on 2020 ballot initiatives will provide detailed information on Issue 3, a constitutional amendment referred by state lawmakers.

Issue 3: Changing the Ballot Initiative Process

HJR1008: A constitutional amendment to amend the process for the submission, challenge, and approval of proposed initiated acts, constitutional amendments and referenda.

Arkansas is one of only 15 states that allow citizens to bring state laws and constitutional amendments directly to voters for approval. This style of direct democracy has been in place in Arkansas since 1910. Over the years, citizens have led campaigns to pass ethics reform packages, minimum wage increases, term limits, and a slew of other laws. Issue 3 is a complex piece of legislation that makes substantial changes to the ballot initiative process. There are two main aspects of the constitutional ballot initiative process that would be changed: the citizen led initiative & referendum process and the legislatively referred amendment process.

Let’s start with changes to the citizen led initiative process. The first change is to create an earlier filing deadline. Currently ballot initiative petitions must be submitted to the Secretary of State no later than four months before the election. If Issue 3 is passed the deadline for filing would be moved up to January of the election year, cutting approximately six months from the signature collection period. Right now a minimum number of signatures must come from at least 15 counties in the state. Issue 3 would increase that to include a minimum number of signatures from at least 3/5ths of all Arkansas counties(or 45 out of 75 counties). A third change to the process would be to implement a deadline for legal challenges to the sufficiency of an initiative. Currently there is no deadline for these court challenges.

Finally the last change to the citizen led initiative process under Issue 3 is the elimination of the amendment process, more commonly referred to as the “cure period”. When an initiative sponsor submits petitions to the Secretary of State it is assumed that a certain number will be disqualified for reasons such as a smudged signature, incorrect date, or bad address. The cure period grants the sponsor an additional 30 days for signature collection, if they have submitted valid signatures equal to at least 75 percent of the required minimum.

Issue 3 also addresses some changes to the process by which the state legislature may refer issues to the ballot for voter consideration. During each legislative session, which happens in odd numbered years, state lawmakers may send up to three constitutional amendments to the ballot. They may also refer an additional amendment to change the salaries for the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer of State, Commissioner of State Lands, Auditor of State and for members of the General Assembly. Currently in order to refer an amendment to the ballot, both chambers of the state legislature must approve the proposed amendment by a simple majority. If passed, Issue 3 would increase that requirement for approval to a three-fifths majority vote.

Additionally Issue 3 would lower the required public notice for referred amendments. Right now the state is required to publish a notice of proposed amendments in at least one newspaper in each county, where a newspaper is published, for six months leading up to the general election. Issue 3 would reduce that requirement to only one public notice in each county.

Supporters of Issue 3 argue that these changes are necessary to protect the initiative process from out of state interest groups. Opponents have labeled Issue 3 as a “petition killer” due to the impact it would have on citizens wishing to bring initiatives to the ballot. Several groups have formed to oppose the amendment claiming it will cause more wealthy special interest groups and lobbyists to take over the process due to the high cost of gathering signatures statewide. Issue 3 is currently the subject of a pending lawsuit that challenges the ballot title created by the 92nd General Assembly in 2019.