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Arkansas Supreme Court will hear supporters’ case for paper ballots amendments

Arkansas Supreme Court will hear supporters’ case for paper ballots amendments

by Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate
January 18, 2024

Arkansas’ highest court agreed Wednesday to fast-track a hearing in a lawsuit from a group advocating for the removal of voting machines from Arkansas elections.

The nonprofit Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative sued Secretary of State John Thurston and the state Board of Election Commissioners earlier this month, asking the state Supreme Court to certify two proposed constitutional amendments: one that would require all Arkansas elections to be conducted with hand-marked, hand-counted paper ballots and one that would limit absentee voting to people who can prove their inability to vote in person.

Arkansas AG rejects proposed measure to conduct elections via hand-marked paper ballots

Restore Election Integrity Arkansas, the ballot question committee supporting the measures, submitted both proposed amendments to Attorney General Tim Griffin in November. Griffin rejected both, citing a lengthy popular name, “partisan coloring language” and ambiguities.

The group submitted revised proposals in December. Last week, Griffin again rejected the paper ballot measure, and he altered and certified the absentee voting measure.

Thurston and the Board of Election Commissioners both declined to certify the proposed amendments as submitted, according to the lawsuit filed Jan. 9, the day before Griffin’s rulings. Certification of the measures would allow supporters to start collecting signatures from supporters.

The group faces a July 5 deadline to collect signatures from 90,704 registered voters in order for the proposed amendments to appear on the November ballot. Clint Lancaster, AVII’s attorney, wrote in the initial legal complaint that the group sought an expedited hearing in order to start collecting signatures with enough time to meet the deadline.

Act 194 of 2023 shifted responsibility for certifying proposed ballot measures from the Board of Election Commissioners to the Attorney General. AVII’s lawsuit asks the Supreme Court to block enforcement of this law, arguing that the Attorney General does not have the constitutional authority to certify ballot language.

The suit also seeks to enjoin Act 236 of 2023, which raised the requirement from 15 to 50 counties in which voters must sign petitions for proposed ballot measures.

State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women voters filed a lawsuit in March 2023 against Act 236, also arguing it’s unconstitutional. The case is still pending in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

The Supreme Court denied AVII’s motion to enjoin the two laws in its ruling granting the expedited hearing.

AVII wants its two proposed amendments on the ballot as they were submitted to Griffin’s office the second time and does not approve of the altered measure regarding absentee voting, Lancaster said.

“The way in which he rewrote it is completely unacceptable [and] a stifling of our speech,” he said.

In the past several weeks, Griffin has also rejected proposed ballot measures pertaining to education, abortion and government transparency.

AVII CEO Conrad Reynolds, who is also the chief operating officer of Restore Election Integrity Arkansas, praised the high court’s decision for an expedited hearing.

“In spite of what appears to be an emerging trend of slow-walking and altering ballot initiatives, particularly those which are not aligned with the views of the current powers, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the delaying tactics of government officials and opted to support the voices of everyday Arkansans,” Reynolds said in a Thursday statement.

Arkansas House committee passes bill to regulate paper ballot counties

The Donald Trump-connected AVII has been engaged in ongoing efforts to convince Arkansas counties to trade voting machines for paper ballots; Cleburne County agreed to do so in January 2023 but later reversed the decision. Act 350 of 2023 requires counties that switch to paper ballots to pay for it themselves.

In December 2022, AVII sued Thurston, the Board of Election Commissioners and voting machine manufacturer Election Systems and Software LLC. The suit asked a judge to block the state from using ES&S’s voting machines in future elections.

A Pulaski County Circuit judge denied the plaintiff’s motion for injunction in September 2023, but Lancaster appealed the decision in November, and the Supreme Court in December agreed to hear the appeal.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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