For most Arkansans, their first exposure to electoral politics comes in Student Council elections. This year’s election will be a lot like those in one way. In another, quite different.
It will be like Student Council elections in that voters will mostly mark the names of their “friends” – their party’s candidates.
There was a time when many voters proudly asserted that they voted for the candidate, not the party. Today, while more people call themselves “independents,” dwindling numbers actually vote that way. We may not outwardly identifying with a party, but we do inwardly, and that’s how we vote.
Here in Arkansas, we know who the popular kids are. In statewide races, in all four congressional districts, and in three-quarters of the state legislative races, they’re the ones with an “R” beside their name. In about a quarter of the legislative races, they have a “D.”
Those percentages won’t change much this election cycle and probably not in the near future. Gov. Asa Hutchinson will face limited resistance from Democrat Jared Henderson, who while losing may set himself up for a future run, as Hutchinson did three times back when Democrats were the popular kids. Of the major races, only the 2nd Congressional District race is potentially competitive. There, Pulaski County’s demographics give the Democrat, state Rep. Clarke Tucker, a fighting chance against incumbent U.S. Rep. French Hill. Still, Hill is the clear favorite.
To really move the needle, Arkansas Democrats need things to happen beyond their control. Those would include a crashing economy that happens to occur while Republicans are in office, changes in the culture and in the national parties, and major demographic shifts. That last one means future Democrats will have to be born in Arkansas, or they’ll have to move here to work for places like Walmart’s corporate headquarters and the company’s suppliers. Meanwhile, older Republicans, the equivalent of yesterday’s “yellow dog Democrats,” will have to die off.
Meanwhile, this election, as others have been, will be quite different than Student Council elections in that voters can enact meaningful policies on up to five ballot issues.
The biggest one – or the one that will attract the most money for and against – will be Issue 1. That's a proposed constitutional amendment limiting jury awards, capping attorneys’ fees, and letting the Legislature change Supreme Court-prescribed rules and procedures.
This is going to be a doozy. Apart from the very real philosophical differences separating both sides, a lot of money will be at stake for lawyers on one side and businesses, nursing homes, and medical providers on the other.
Issue 1 was referred to the voters by the Legislature. So was Issue 2, a constitutional amendment requiring voters to present a photo I.D. Voters already were required to do so in the May primaries because of a state law passed in 2017. This would enshrine the requirement in the Constitution to prevent it from being overturned by a judge.
Three other measures could be on the ballot. One group seeks to legalize casinos at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis (rather than just the currently allowed “electronic games of skill”) while also allowing casinos in the Russellville and Pine Bluff areas. Another group seeks to tighten legislative term limits to two four-year terms in the Senate, three two-year terms in the House, and 10 years total. Finally, a proposed initiated act – a law passed by voters but not a constitutional amendment – would raise the minimum wage in stages from its current $8.50 per hour to $11 in 2021.
Those three efforts have a long journey ahead of them before they end up on your ballot. The secretary of state must count and certify the signatures collected. Then opponents will sue over various issues. In the past, many ballot initiatives have been stopped in court one way or the other. Sometimes it happens very late in the process after a lot of money and effort have been spent (and columns written).
Still, things get through. Term limits have changed a couple of times since I started voting, and voters legalized medical marijuana two years ago.
Granted, people with qualifying conditions can’t actually get marijuana yet, legally. But the vote did count. Now it’s in the hands of the Medical Marijuana Commission – unless and until it winds up back in court.
Grown-up Student Council is a little more complicated, isn’t it?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.