Lawmakers discuss changes in ballot petition process


LITTLE ROCK — A state lawmaker said Thursday he hopes legislation can be filed during the 2013 session that will ensure that the process of placing initiatives on the ballot is fair and free of fraud and irregularities.

The Senate and House committees on state agencies and governmental affairs spent more than an hour discussing possible ways to prevent the signature collection problems experienced by two groups trying to get proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Among the ideas discussed were the repeal of a 1999 law that allowed an early review of proposed ballot measures, limiting the signature gathering period, moving the deadline to turn in signatures and regulating groups that pay canvassers.

“I think we’re definitely going to consider bringing some legislation,” Sen. Jason Rapert, D-Conway, said after the meeting, “but we want to make sure the cure is not worse then the problem, so we want to be careful about it.”

Election officials last summer were able to verify just 30 percent or less of the signatures turned in by supporters of two ballot issues. Alex Reed, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said at the time that election officials were concerned about the low number of verified signatures and discovered a number of irregularities, including forged signatures.

Martha Adcock, attorney for the secretary of state’s office, said after Thursday’s committee meeting that the office is still reviewing the matter and has yet to ask the state police to investigate any ballot fraud problems. Some local prosecutors, however, have begun conducting investigations of their own.

During Thursday’s committee meeting, Jerry Cox, president of the conservative Family Council, said his organization has been involved in five separate ballot campaigns, including the 2004 Arkansas Marriage Amendment, which received more than 70 percent of the vote.

“What we’re dealing with is two kinds of petition gathering that goes on,” Cox said. “One is the hired gun that comes in from out of state with a lot of money, they hire canvassers who don’t care about the issue, just want money. They don’t care whether the signature is valid or not, they’re just going to go and collect their signature.”

The other is the all volunteer petition gathering campaign where everyone believes in the proposal and wants to make sure the signatures are legitimate, he said.

“In my opinion, the difference is between the people that are just doing it as hirelings and the ones who really care about the issue,” Cox said. “I would urge you, as you think about any regulations or laws that need to be changed in this area, that you think in terms of the volunteer people that are just regular people like you and me and live here in Arkansas that want to exercise their rights under Amendment 7 to change the law. And then you have all these other folks who are doing it for pay.”

Adcock said some states regulate canvassers and the groups that propose the ballot questions. She also said the Arkansas Constitution stipulates that signatures must be submitted to the secretary of state’s office four months before the general election for verification. Changing that time line would require a constitutional amendment, she said.

Some lawmakers asked about the punishment for falsifying a signature and Adcock said the offense is a misdemeanor.

Several lawmakers suggested enhancing the penalties for falsifying signatures, while others on the panel expressed frustration that few are prosecuted under the current law.

Cox also suggested that the Legislature consider repealing Act 877 of 1999. The law was enacted to allow an early review by the state attorney general of proposed initiated acts and constitutional amendments.

Last summer, Secretary of State Mark Martin, under Act 877, rejected a casino proposal by Nancy Todd after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel suggested the measure was insufficient because it did not mention its possible affect on electronic games of skill operated in the state. McDaniel’s recommendation came after he had certified Todd’s proposal, clearing it for signature-gathering.

Todd revised the measure to address the matter McDaniel raised after the fact, but the state Supreme Court later declared the proposal invalid to appear on the ballot because the wording was different from the measure for which registered voters signed petitions.

“She was caught between a rock and a hard place,” Cox said, adding he didn’t think the law was fair.