LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A 2013 law requiring initiative campaigns to register their paid canvassers with the state and conduct criminal background checks on them was intended to help Arkansas crack down on questionable signatures being submitted for ballot measures. Three challenges before the state’s highest court will be the first major test of those restrictions, and may open the door for new ways to challenge future proposals.
Lawsuits pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court on proposals to legalize medical marijuana, allow casino gambling and limit medical lawsuit damages hinge on accusations that campaigns didn’t follow the 3-year-old rules on registering and reporting paid canvassers.
The state Supreme Court last week rejected one of three lawsuits that tried to block votes on medical pot this fall. A coalition of groups against the proposed initiated act, and which included the state Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Farm Bureau, argued that the ballot title was misleading and didn’t properly inform voters of the consequences of legalizing the drug. The coalition, Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, cited concerns about the impact the measure would have on landlords, employers and schools.
Justices unanimously rejected that argument. In the majority opinion, Justice Josephine Linker Hart repeatedly wrote that "it is not necessary that a ballot title include every possible consequence or impact of a proposed measure."
That doesn’t bode well for a similar lawsuit the coalition has filed against a competing medical marijuana measure. It also isn’t a good sign for the Arkansas Bar Association’s challenge to the proposed amendment setting limits on non-economic damages awarded in medical lawsuits.
But it does open the door for the other cases that are attacking the signatures submitted as well as ballot measure language.
The campaigns behind four ballot measures that are being challenged in court all relied on paid canvassers and reported hiring hundreds of workers to gather signatures across the state. The canvasser registry is part of a 2013 law enacted in response to fraudulent signatures submitted in support of ballot measures in the 2012 election.
The restrictions were blocked during the 2014 election because of a legal challenge, but the state Supreme Court last year upheld most of the canvassing law. In addition to registering canvassers with the state, campaigns also have to ensure that signature-gatherers pass a criminal background check.
In three of the cases still pending before the state Supreme Court, opponents of the ballot measures argue the campaigns didn’t follow the law’s restrictions so some of the signatures submitted should be invalidated. Three retired judges have been appointed to review the claims about the signatures and will issue reports to the court on their findings.
If the 2013 law is used to disqualify the measures, it offers a new avenue for future challenges to ballot proposals. It could also raise the stakes for future campaigns that rely on paid canvassers to comply with every registration requirement under the law.
But a bigger question still looms over the canvasser law. Health Care Access for Arkansans, the group behind the lawsuit limits proposal, has filed a counter complaint with the court and argues that election officials improperly invalidated signatures submitted. The complaint requests the court to find the registration restrictions unconstitutional.
The court’s rulings in the coming weeks won’t just decide whether the paid signature gatherer law becomes a new weapon for future lawsuits. They may decide whether those restrictions will even survive this election.
ANDREW DEMILLO has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo