Two ballot reform measures stall in House committee


LITTLE ROCK — One ballot reform measure to require paid canvassers to be trained and registered and another to mandate criminal background checks for candidates stalled in a House committee Wednesday.

Both bills are supported by the attorney general’s office and the conservative Christian group Family Council.

Senate Bill 821 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, was developed to address signature collection problems that occurred last year when 70 percent of signatures submitted to the secretary of state’s office in support of two ballot proposals were ruled invalid.

It would require those paid to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to be registered with the secretary of state’s office and to undergo a training program established by the state Board of Election Commissioners, which would include a summary of the law applicable to obtaining signatures on an initiative or referendum petition.

Also under the bill, clearly fraudulent signatures would not be counted during the initial signature review, the county clerk or secretary of state would be required to report fraudulent signatures to the local prosecutor and state police, and all groups would have the same number days, 30, to fix problems with the petitions, including collecting new signatures when the secretary of state declares the number of signatures deficient.

Some members of House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday questioned the need for additional requirements in the citizen initiative process.

“It looks like we’re adding another layer of government to the process when we could simply be prosecuting,” said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena.

Rep. John Vines, D-Hot Springs, the House sponsor of the bill, said SB 821 requires only paid canvassers, not volunteers, to complete training. He later agreed to temporarily remove the bill from consideration and try to address concerns raised by committee members about training.

Ingram said later he thought the something could be worked out to keep the training requirement in the bill.

“There might be an alternative that we can utilize,” Ingram said. “I think it was envisioned that the training could be as simple as a short video to demonstrate the laws, make sure that the canvassers know the laws … so that somebody couldn’t plead, ‘Oh, I wasn’t aware of it.’”

SB 1029, also filed by Ingram, would require a candidate for political office to undergo a criminal background check by the Arkansas State Police. The candidate would pay for the check.

The panel deferred action on the bill after Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, asked for a fiscal impact study of the measure to determine whether state police could handle the additional work with current staff or if the agency would have to hire more personnel.

The committee did endorse SB 822, also by Ingram, which would require any company that wants to pay people to collect signatures for ballot initiatives in Arkansas to register with the secretary of state’s office. The measure also would require ballot question or legislative question committees to file a financial report with the secretary of state’ office if they spend more than $500 on the effort.

The bill goes to the House.