CLC, Arkansas Voters First File Suit To Challenge Signature Requirement, Allow Citizens’ Voice in Redistricting
Suit Seeks to Allow Safe Ballot Signature Collection for Anti-Gerrymandering Initiative During Pandemic
Fayetteville, AR – Arkansas Voters First, an independent non-profit organization advocating for a non-partisan redistricting commission in the state, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas seeking relief from state guidelines making it impossible to collect the requisite signatures for placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are represented by Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a national nonprofit group that seeks to expand access to the democratic process.
“We have a right to petition our government to amend our constitution. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until next year,” said Bonnie Miller, Director of Arkansas Voters First and President of the League of Women Voters of Washington County.“If we are denied access to the ballot this year, Arkansas could be stuck with unfair and unrepresentative districts for another ten years.”
At issue in 2020 is whether voters will have the chance to vote in November on an initiative to remove the power of redistricting from politicians and create an independent citizens’ redistricting commission. Arkansas is the eighth worst gerrymander in the U.S., according to USC’s Schwarzenegger Institute.
For a constitutional amendment to be allowed onto the ballot, Arkansas requires over 89,000 signatures of registered voters be collected in the presence of a canvasser who must then appear before a notary public to attest that they witnessed the voter sign the petition. Due to the current global public health crisis, collecting signatures in-person – and complying with onerous witness requirements – create a substantial risk to both the canvasser and the voter. Many potential signees live in places like nursing homes and are unable to leave their homes or have visitors to sign petitions.
“Every voice should be heard in our democracy, and every vote should count equally,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “Arkansans deserve the right to decide whether their voting district maps will be drawn by a neutral commission or politicians pursuing a partisan agenda."
The complaint asks the court to take actions that will allow voters to exercise their constitutional right to petition for the redistricting amendment without jeopardizing the health and safety of fellow Arkansans.
There is strong bipartisan support for the Arkansas Citizen’s Redistricting Commission Amendment among likely 2020 general election voters. According to a nonpartisan poll commissioned by Arkansas Voters First, 58% of all voters support the creation of independent redistricting commissions.
The lawsuit advocates for the following protections for voters:
- No witness requirement for petition signatures (and therefore no notarization by canvassers that they witnessed the petitioners sign the petition);
- A reduction in the total amount of signatures required;
- A delay to the signature submission deadline beyond July 3; and
- Submission of electronic signatures.
Bonnie Miller – Director of Arkansas Voters First, Inc and Chairperson of Arkansas Voters First ballot question committee. Miller is also President of the League of Women Voters of Washington County, a board member of the League of Arkansas, and the Chair of Redistricting Initiatives with the League of Arkansas.
Arkansas Voters First, Inc. Individuals began working on a ballot initiative supporting independent redistricting in 2017. The group was formally incorporated in February 2020.
Adella Gray – Former Fayetteville City Councilwoman. Ms. Gray has been an active public servant most of her adult life, previously serving on the Fayetteville City Council and as an elementary school counselor in the Springdale Public Schools. Ms. Gray is supportive of the ballot measure and would like to sign the petition, but is unable to have a notarized signature collector establish an in-person meeting at her residence in a retirement village.
Bob Allen – Dr. Bob Allen is an emeritus professor at Arkansas Tech University, where he specialized in organic and environmental chemistry. Dr. Allen is currently undergoing chemotherapy to fight cancer. Requiring Dr. Allen to meet in person with a canvasser puts his health in great jeopardy. Should Dr. Allen contract the Coronavirus from a canvasser, his compromised immune system would likely subject him to a significantly increased risk of hospitalization or even death.
Arkansas Voters First, Inc. was just beginning the process of collecting petition signatures when the Governor issued a state of emergency effectively eliminating any ability to collect signatures for any state ballot initiatives. In addition to collecting signatures electronically – as is commonly done in legal and financial transactions throughout the state – Arkansas Voters First is asking the court to reduce the total number of signatures it must collect due to the exceptional circumstances created by COVID-19 and social distancing.