Arkansas Ballot Initiatives
Arkansas allows citizens to propose laws and state constitutional amendments through the ballot initiative process. Under state law, supporters must gather signatures from a certain percentage of legal voters.
But after voters rebuffed a GOP ballot measure proposal in 2020, Republicans drafted legislation to make it harder for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot.
Issue 1: Amendment to the State Constitution
Three years ago, Arkansas Republicans reacted to the success of progressive ballot initiatives like medical marijuana and an increased minimum wage by proposing a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for voters to place measures on the ballot. That proposal was soundly rejected in November 2020.
The state constitution currently allows citizens to propose legislatively referred constitutional amendments to be placed on the ballot by collecting signatures from a majority of registered voters in at least 15 counties. HB 1419, however, would raise that requirement to 50 counties.
Supporters of the measure argue that this will provide a level playing field to groups with deep pockets, which can afford to invest large sums in their initiatives. Opponents, however, say the bill would violate the First Amendment, which prohibits government from burdening a person’s practice of religion.
Issue 2: Amendment to the State Constitution
The State Constitution allows the General Assembly to propose up to three constitutional amendments for Arkansas voters to decide. These are filed in resolution form and vetted by a joint House-Senate State Agencies Committee.
Citizens may also petition for citizen-led initiatives to appear on the ballot. In both cases, a simple majority of the statewide vote is needed to pass an amendment or initiated act.
But if SB 1419 becomes law, that threshold would rise to 60% for legislatively-referred proposed constitutional amendments and citizen-led initiated acts. The measure’s advocates argue this is necessary to protect the rights of all Arkansans, including those from out-of-state interests. But opponents say it will make it harder for voters to challenge their government’s policies.
Issue 3: Amendment to the State Constitution
As part of the state constitution, legislators are allowed to refer three proposals to voters on a general election ballot. If voters approve these proposed amendments, they will be added to the constitution.
This would allow for the licensing of marijuana grows and dispensaries to sell non-medical marijuana. It also includes a sales tax and requires the proceeds from those sales be used to pay law enforcement stipends every year, support the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and fund drug court programs.
HB 1419 recycles a proposal that voters rejected in 2020, but this time it was drafted as a constitutional amendment to sidestep voter opposition. It would change the rules for the ballot initiative process and require future initiatives to get 60% of votes.
Issue 4: Amendment to the State Constitution
When state legislators approve an initiated statute or constitutional amendment, citizens can collect signatures to refer it to a public vote. The proposal must receive a majority of votes to pass.
Republican politicians got so upset about progressive initiatives like medical marijuana and the minimum wage that they tried to amend the constitution to make it harder for citizens to place initiatives on the ballot. That measure, Issue 3, was rejected by voters.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is proposing changes to the current guidelines for submission, challenge and approval of proposed amendments. The panel is considering three proposed constitutional amendments to refer to the public. Its chairman, Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said members will not be voting on the resolutions, but rather indicating which of the proposals are their first, second and third choices.
Issue 5: Amendment to the State Constitution
The measure would require that constitutional amendments, initiated acts and referendums pass with a supermajority of 60 percent of the votes. Currently, they need only a majority of the vote to pass.
The proposal would also make it easier for the legislature to impose additional requirements on citizen-led initiatives. For example, it would allow the state attorney general to file a legal challenge against ballot language that misleads or deceives voters.
But critics argue that the amendment is unconstitutional, saying that the state constitution does not contain any provisions limiting how voter-led initiatives can be structured or voted on. Tucker called the measure “one of the most blatantly unconstitutional” bills he has ever seen in his years in the legislature. Regardless, the measure’s fate will be determined by the state supreme court.