Canvassers who rely on spring festivals and events to collect voter signatures needed to put constitutional amendments and state laws on the ballot are seeing these opportunities disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arkansas is one of 15 states in which citizens can propose constitutional amendments and state laws through the ballot initiative process.
“Citizen-initiated measures are up in the air, as the Arkansas Constitution mandates petitions with voter signatures be submitted by July 3,” Kristin Higgins, program associate with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Public Policy Center, said. “The state legislature and governor cannot alter the date set by the constitution. Nor does the constitution or state law allow voter signatures to be gathered digitally.
“The signatures must be collected on paper and those petitions must be notarized,” she said. “Both of these matters are more difficult as people are staying home.”
One group, Arcade Arkansas, started collecting signatures in September for its gaming proposal. A spokesperson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the spread of COVID-19 has complicated the signature-gathering effort.
Other groups are updating their volunteers through Facebook, urging alternatives for collecting voter signatures.
Organizers with Arkansas True Grass, an organization that advocates for the legalization of cannabis and hemp, have told Facebook group members to request a petition to be mailed to them, hoping people will get them signed and notarized before sending them back. They’re also asking for donations to help cover the cost of the unexpected printing and postage.
“I wished we could somehow get legislators to provide a way for people to sign a petition electronically,” Mary Lou Berry with Arkansas True Grass, said. “It would be much safer and would help the voices of those shut in that don’t go out, who do vote by absentee ballots. Why not provide the people a way to sign electronically?”
Berry helped write another proposed constitutional amendment, The Arkansas Digital Petition Signing Option Act, which would allow voters to sign petitions electronically. However, they haven’t started collecting any signatures for the ballot measure yet.
Another group seeking to legalize marijuana for personal use and to address past criminal convictions related to marijuana has also urged people on Facebook to take caution and to take measures to keep themselves healthy and not spread the virus.
“Your lives and your family’s life is much more important than signatures,” Melissa Fults posted on the Drug Policy Education Group-Arkansas page.
In an email, Fults told the Public Policy Center that signature gathering has drastically slowed due to the precautions for the coronavirus.
“We are at 15,000 [signatures] right now, but if it breaks by May 1 we should be able to gather the required number of signatures,” Fults said.
Thirteen proposed constitutional amendments and state laws have been filed with the Secretary of State’s Office for the November ballot. In addition, Arkansas legislators have referred three amendments to voters and a group collected enough signatures for a referendum on a 2019 state law.
Ballot issue groups have until July 3 to submit the required 89,151 voter signatures for amendments and 71,321 voter signatures for state laws. Those signatures must come from at least 15 different counties.
The Public Policy Center has published statewide voter guides on Arkansas ballot issues since 2004, providing Arkansans a neutral source of research-based information on proposed constitutional amendments and state laws. Sign up for the center’s monthly ballot issue newsletter at https://uaex.edu/ballot.