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Arkansas ballot initiatives show the people really do rule

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Arkansas ballot initiatives show the people really do rule

Feb 05, 2024 | 8:45 am ET
By Sonny Albarado
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Arkansas ballot initiatives show the people really do rule
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Petitioners gather signatures for a ballot initiative to expand abortion access in Arkansas during the Voices and Votes rally on Jan. 28, 2024 in Fayetteville. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Get ready, Arkansas. The petitioners are coming.

In coming weeks, people armed with clipboards and sheaves of paper will accost Arkansans outside supermarkets, on street corners and inside businesses (with the owners’ permission, of course).

These document wielders will be asking passersby to sign petitions in support of several constitutional amendments and state laws.

 So far, nine citizen-initiated ballot titles have been certified by Attorney General Tim Griffin. Certification means supporters of those proposed constitutional amendments and state laws have until July 5 to gather the required number of signatures from 50 of the state’s 75 counties and have them validated by the secretary of state’s office.

Proposed constitutional amendments require valid signatures from at least 90,704 voters.Proposed state laws require valid signatures from a minimum of 72,563 Arkansas voters.

Once validated, the proposals will be placed on the Nov. 5 ballot for voters to decide whether they become law or get added to the state Constitution.

Arkansas is one of 15 states where citizens can propose constitutional amendments, state laws or referendums to veto legislative action.

And this year, citizens seem to have taken to heart the state motto, Regnat Populus — Latin for The People Rule.

The nine certified ballot titles include four that are essentially the same: they all seek to add a constitutional amendment asserting a right to government transparency. A fifth ballot title would make changes in the state Freedom of Information Act designed to strengthen its protections of citizen access to public information and meetings.

The Arkansas Government Openness Amendment would establish “government transparency” as a right of Arkansas citizens and prohibit the General Assembly from enacting laws affecting government transparency without a vote of the people. Griffin also approved other popular names for the same amendment: The Arkansas Government Disclosure Amendment and The Open Meetings and Open Records in State and Local Government Amendment, but the language of each is the same.

The Arkansas Government Disclosure Act would codify the definition of a public meeting, protect access to public records and the right to appeal denials, and create a new commission to enforce citizens’ rights under the FOIA.

The proposed transparency amendment and the changes to the FOIA came about after a bipartisan citizen uprising against attempts by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and several lawmakers to dim the Sunshine Law in both the regular 2023 legislative session and a special session in September.

Sanders eked out a victory when lawmakers created a carve-out in the FOIA for most records involving her travel and security. The proposed Government Disclosure Act would make many of those records public after three months.

One of the other four citizen-led ballot initiatives seeks to exempt feminine hygiene products and diapers from state sales taxes.

Another seeks to amend the constitution by specifying the time during which absentee ballots could be distributed, how they can be handled and prohibiting elections from using the internet, Bluetooth or wireless connections.

It’s one of two proposals submitted by Restore Election Integrity Arkansas. Griffin rejected the other proposal, which would require elections to be held and votes counted using paper ballots only. The state Supreme Court has agreed to expedite a hearing on the group’s appeal of Griffin’s decision. 

The Arkansas Abortion Amendment of 2024, would allow abortion within 18 weeks of fertilization, in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly or “to protect a pregnant female’s life or to protect a pregnant female from a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury.”

State law only allows abortion to save the life of a pregnant person in a “medical emergency,” making it one of the strictest bans in the nation. Attempts to further define medical emergency in the last legislative session did not succeed.

On Friday, Griffin certified another proposed law that would change the year when a vehicle could display an antique or historic vehicle license plate from the current minimum 45 years to a minimum of 25 years.

Beyond these certified initiatives, others are still trying to get Griffin to approve their proposals:

  • A medical marijuana industry group wants to amend the constitution to make it easier for patients to obtain the drug and allow for recreational use if the federal government declassifies it.
  • An education coalition to amend the constitution’s education clause to require all schools that receive state funds to meet the same standards as traditional public schools, among other things.

Whether you agree with the goals of these ballot initiatives, you should be heartened that your fellow Arkansans care enough about their society and the way it is governed to go through the complicated, difficult process of drafting a document that can pass the scrutiny of the state’s top legal officer.

Now their hardest task begins: convincing enough voters in 50 counties to add their names to the list of citizens who want to give all voters a chance to weigh in on these important issues.

Bravo!