Citizens’ initiative—citizens’ ability to add a referendum to the ballot by gathering enough signatures—has long been a laudable feature of a working democracy. Issue 3 on the Arkansas Ballot—called Changing Arkansas’ Citizen Initiative Process, Votes Required for Legislative Ballot Issue Proposals and Publication Requirement—seeks to increase the number of signatures required to get an issue on the ballot.
As it stands, a constitutional amendment in Arkansas needs at least 10% in signatures of the total number of votes cast for governor in the last election. Thus, following this requirement, to be on the 2020 ballot, a constitutional amendment needs 89,151 signatures. Additionally, signatures amounting to 5% of the total number of votes cast for governor in the last election must be collected from at least 15 counties. Analogized by Ballotpedia, “If 1,000 people voted for governor in a county and the petition is for a constitutional amendment, the signatures of 50 qualified electors would be required.” At least 75% of the signatures need to be verified. If the percentage of collected signatures is not high enough, the petitioners have an additional 30 days—known as a “cure period”—to collect more signatures. All of the signatures need to be turned into the Secretary of State four months before an election.
Issue 3 seeks to change almost everything about the standing citizens’ initiative. First, the number of required signatures would need to be collected across 45 counties, rather than 15. If voted on by a majority in this election, the cure period to correct any unapproved signatures would be eliminated. Further, a complete total of signatures would need to be turned into the Secretary of State by Jan. 15 of election year, rather than four months until the election.
State legislators are not exempt from Issue 3. In order for legislators to get an issue on the ballot, they need support from 18 out of 35 senators and 51 out of 100 representatives; If Issue 3 were approved, these numbers would increase to 21 senators and 60 representatives. Further changes include deleting a requirement that all constitutional amendments proposed by legislators be published in a newspaper in each county for six months before the election.
According to Kristin Higgins, program associate at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Office, when legislators were discussing the amendment, they thought the current requirements made changing the state constitution too easy. Making issues more difficult to get on the ballot “is the point … they were saying it should be harder to get something on the ballot or to change the constitution,” Higgins said. Higgins noted that the Arkansas’ constitution was adopted in 1874, and in the 2018 election Arkansas voters made the 100th amendment to it.
By comparison, Alabama—which was admitted as a state 17 years before Arkansas—has amended their constitution over 900 times, according to Ballotpedia. Arkansas’ historical records show that between 1884 and 2018, citizens’ initiatives gathered enough signatures to put 77 amendments on the ballot, 71 of which were approved by voters.
Only 800,000 Arkansas citizens voted in the last election, despite Arkansas having over 1.7 million registered voters. Voters can cast a ballot much more confidently if they know the issue well. To find more information about Issue 3, and the other issues on the ballot, you can visit the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension Services voter guide at www.uaex.edu.