The Arkansas Supreme Court, split 4-3, has reversed a lower court and ordered him to reconsider signatures he disallowed in blocking the counting of votes on a local option alcohol vote in Saline County.
Judge Grisham Phillips will have to reconsider all petition signatures, including 720 that weren’t counted. If valid signatures not originally included are counted, it would appear to open the door to counting the ballots from Tuesday’s election.
Justice Courtney Goodson wrote for the majority, joined by Karen Baker, Jo Hart and Cliff Hoofman. Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justices Donald Corbin and Paul Danielson dissented.
The issue has appeared on early voting ballots, but Phillips order had meant that the votes could not be counted. The door is now open to counting, unless Phillips is somehow persuaded that the petitions still fall short, though the additional signatures have already been found to be valid.
Writing in dissent, Corbin said the majority opinion was “another blatant attempt … to reach a desired result without any regard for the resulting consequences.” It’s Corbin’s view that the proper course would have been to send the issue back to the county clerk for full recertification of petitions, if the challenge wasn’t moot by deadlines in the law for certifying such elections. Instead, the court ordered the circuit judge to reconsider recertification with the 720 signatures he had not been willing to count originally. Those signatures were not considered when the county clerk certified the measure for the ballot because shortly after the threshold of 25,580 was reached, the counting stopped. But some of those signatures the clerk had validated were disqualified as a result of the lawsuit, enough to leave the petitions 86 signatures short. The judge refused to consider the 720 at that point.
Corbin expressed skepticism that the issue could be properly resolved before the county election commission meets to certify votes on the measure.
The county clerk’s decision to stop counting signatures after the threshold had been passed is a legislative problem, not something to be solved by the Supreme Court, he said.
The majority said to affirm Phillips would “silence the voices of registered voters who properly affixed their names to a petition but whose signatures were deemed unnecessary to count by the county clerk.” The majority said Phillips erred in not considering the “entirety” of the petitions, rather than just those included in the counting by the clerk before he stopped and certified the measure for the ballot.
The group pushing for the alcohol vote had to get signatures from 38 percent of registered voters. Walmart and Kum and Go, primarily Walmart, have been pushing for the vote. Money to fight it came from liquor stores in neighboring counties that don’t want competition in currently dry Saline County.
If the measure is considered “live” on Tuesday, I’d expect serious advertising push in the final hours. That could affect turnout in populous Saline County, perhaps a factor in the statewide vote on an amendment to approve alcohol sales in all 75 counties. If that amendment passes, the Saline County local option is moot.
Petitioners will say the result was proper, that the majority sided with the petition signer, a concern that should be paramount. If the court is as attuned to the popular sentiment as this and the ruling to allow the statewide alcohol vote might signal and the minimum wage petition, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It soon must consider a popularly adopted ban on same-sex marriage where the Constitution — state and U.S. — meet up with those sanctified people.
UPDATE: Our Community Our Dollars, the group pushing the vote, is naturally very happy. Its statement follows:
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled today in favor of an Our Community, Our Dollars appeal to allow Saline County residents to vote Nov. 4 on legalizing retail alcohol sales in their county.
The state’s highest court released its ruling today, saying that 720 valid signatures – which were never tallied by the Saline County Clerk’s Office after the office chose to stop counting when it thought the needed amount was met – would be counted. This means the ballot issue No. 6 is legal and will be counted in the 2014 election.
“We are extremely pleased to hear this ruling,” said Marshall Ney, an attorney with Mitchell Williams who represented Our Community, Our Dollars in the Oct. 23 oral arguments to the Arkansas Supreme Court. “This means the approximately 26,000 residents in Saline County who signed the petition in hopes this issue will be on the ballot will have their opportunity to vote come Nov. 4.”
Early voting in the state has already begun. Residents can vote up until Election Day on Nov. 4. The wet/dry issue specific to Saline County is No. 6 on the ballot and allows residents to vote on whether the county changes from a dry county to a wet one. A wet county will allow liquor stores and retail establishments to sell beer, wine and liquor in the county.
Today, restaurants and hotels in Saline County wishing to sell alcohol must do so as a “private club,” and private clubs must purchase alcohol from a retailer (private clubs cannot purchase alcohol from wholesalers) in a neighboring county or somewhere else. If Saline is voted wet, these clubs could purchase alcohol from retailers in their respective county, a convenience issue for them and an economic issue for the county.
“This vote is very important to Saline County residents because it is an opportunity for them to keep tax dollars from alcohol sales in their own county and not fund surrounding counties’ coffers,” said Jay Allen, president of Our Community, Our Dollars. “The more tax revenue Saline County ultimately receives, the better equipped it is to fund key services and amenities, such as police, fire, EMS, roads and parks.”
An economic impact study conducted by the University of Arkansas’ Center for Business and Economic Research estimates that based on potential sales figures from 2013, a wet Saline County could have seen $34.2 million in sales with related sales tax revenues. The overall potential economic benefit to the county going wet on an annual basis could be approximately $12.5 million, said Kathy Deck, author of the study and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research.
Key funders of the Our Community, Our Dollars committee include Walmart and Kum & Go. Together, these two companies operate four stores with 780 employees in Saline County. Our Community, Our Dollars is led by President Jay Allen and Treasurer Polly Martin, president of the Arkansas Grocers & Retail Merchants.