The Arkansas state motto is "regnat populus" — Latin for "the people rule" — and part of our tradition is that our state constitution allows the people to directly pass laws.
This important piece of Arkansas democracy is worthy of protecting, but needs to be tightened a bit, as evidenced by a recent trend in the petitioning process.
Our constitution gives the people the power to put forward an initiated act for voter approval by obtaining the signatures of at least 8 percent of the voters — 10 percent in the case of a proposal to amend the constitution — as determined by votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.
The genius of the process is that it allows us to maintain a piece of the most direct form of democracy while at the same time setting a high bar for doing so to prevent legislation from being passed without some degree of thoughtful consideration and a high degree of public support.
This year, it appears several groups have tried to game the system.
The way the process works, supporters of ballot measures are required to submit signatures on petitions to the secretary of state for verification four months prior to the general election. The secretary of state’s office then certifies whether petitioners obtained enough valid signatures from registered voters to qualify for the general election ballot.
If the petitioners meet the threshold by the original due date but fall below the required number of valid signatures, they are given an additional 30 days try to make up the deficiency.
It is common for petitioners to need additional time to collect signatures. In 2008, the Family Council of Arkansas submitted signatures for a ballot initiative to ban cohabiting adults from being adoptive or foster parents. The secretary of state determined 57,888 signatures out of 65,952 submitted were valid — about 88 percent of the 61,794 signatures required. The group made up the deficiency within the 30-day window and their initiated act passed in the November election.
That’s how the system is supposed to work. However, this year it appears several groups turned in thousands of signatures they knew were invalid in hopes of getting the additional 30 days to collect more.
One group seeking to raise the state severance tax on natural gas turned in petitions on which the secretary of state’s office determined just 30 percent of the signatures were valid. The group’s chief backer, former gas company executive Sheffield Nelson, said he was surprised by the final tally but acknowledged he believed only 60 percent of the signatures were valid when he submitted them.
This game of buying more time is costly to the state. The secretary of state’s office hired a top CPA firm and a slew of temporary employees for the verification process. This additional staff cost at least $17,000 to determine what Nelson already knew — his group turned in mainly invalid signatures.
It is understandable that some signatures will be thrown out during the process due to some legitimate mistakes, such as people mistakenly thinking they are eligible voters when they have not registered.
But the severance tax hike petitions contained obviously erroneous signatures. They included whole pages where everyone had the same last name or had names in alphabetical order – as they would appear in the phone book or on voter rolls — all in the same handwriting.
Signing petitions with a false name and signing off on these pages as a canvasser is a crime, though it is doubtful they will actually be prosecuted.
Obviously, some sort of solution is needed to prevent future groups from playing this costly game to buy more time.
It seems the simplest way to accomplish this would be to set a minimum threshold of valid signatures that must be submitted for the petitioners to get the additional 30 days if they come up short. By setting a floor such as 70 percent, the state could ensure that the petitioners were making a good-faith effort to submit only – or at least primarily — valid signatures.
Such a requirement could even go a step further and create an economic incentive to prevent gaming the system by setting a second level where the ballot measure group would be required to reimburse the taxpayers for the funds wasted trying to validate signatures that backers know to be invalid. This way the taxpayers are not on the hook for ballot groups’ silly game.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com