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Ballot proposals may be fatally flawed

<p>Steve Brawner</p>

Steve Brawner

Looks like some blowhard pundit completely misread the situation when it came to voter-initiated ballot proposals for casinos, medical marijuana and raising the severance tax – the blowhard pundit being the columnist you’re currently reading.

Earlier in July, my column headlined, “This year’s ballot: Taxes, casinos and pot” asserted those ballot issues would overshadow the ones featuring human candidates.

Turns out that Arkansans probably won’t be voting on any of them. Supporters gathering the required number of signatures by registered voters were embarrassingly, perhaps fraudulently, short.

The casino proposal, which would have amended the Arkansas Constitution, required 78,133 signatures. Organizers submitted 80,000, but only 23,616 belonged to confirmed registered voters, according to the secretary of state’s office and the independent accounting firm it hired.

The other proposals would have changed state law and required 62,507 signatures. The Committee for a Fair Severance Tax, which hoped to raise the tax on natural gas extracted from the ground, submitted 70,000 signatures, but 41,000 of those were invalid. Only 35,000 of the 65,000 signatures submitted by medical marijuana supporters were valid.

Casino and medical marijuana supporters have promised to keep trying. Under Arkansas law, because they succeeded in presenting the apparent minimum number of signatures by the deadline July 6, they have an additional 30 days from the time they were notified of the deficit to make up the difference. I don’t see how they’ll do that.

Allowing voters to submit ballot proposals is a vital part of our democracy, but with that right comes a responsibility not to submit technically enough signatures simply to buy time to collect more.

These groups failed to verify that the signers were registered voters – failed pretty badly, actually. Fellow columnist Jason Tolbert got his hands on the signatures for the severance tax proposal and published some of them on his Talk Business blog. Numerous signatures are in the same handwriting, and on one page they are in alphabetical order.

That would be impossible to arrange in real life. These signatures aren’t organized after the fact; people sign them at some town festival on their way to the chicken-on-a-stick booth.

Under Arkansas law, signing another person’s name to a petition is a Class A misdemeanor. So is knowingly signing a petition you are not legally entitled to sign – in other words, if you are not a registered voter. Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500, although no one is going to jail because of these petitions.

These proposals stand in marked contrast to a group, Regnat Populus, that earlier this year attempted to gather signatures that would have banned corporate and union campaign contributions in Arkansas state elections, required legislators to wait two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists and forbade legislators from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

The group had respected bipartisan backers and attracted a lot of positive media attention, but when it failed to collect enough signatures, it admitted it and pledged to continue the fight another day.

Solutions? Perhaps the number of signatures that must be collected to change a law (but not the Constitution) should be reduced. Sixty-two thousand signatures just to give voters a say in ending lobbyists’ gifts to legislators? That’s a lot. The current system makes it very hard for average citizens to put something on the ballot, particularly if it’s a good-government type of proposal that doesn’t benefit any big-money backers.

Another idea is to reduce the 30-day grace period, maybe to 10 days. That would inspire proposal advocates to try to verify they have valid signatures. Ten days would be enough time for them to collect a few thousand if necessary, but it would not be enough to provide them a do-over if they fall far short.

Or we could just leave it like it is. Recent polls by Talk Business showed that the casino monopoly and severance tax increase proposals did not enjoy broad popular support, while voters were split on medical marijuana.

Those ideas are off the ballot – along with the Regnat Populus proposal, which probably would have passed easily – thanks to the current system.

So should we keep it?

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com

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