Mark Hewett, a retired circuit judge appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to review petitions for a referendum on the state law that broadened optometrists’ ability to do eye surgery, has concluded the petition drive failed.

Hewett invalidated the majority of the signatures that had been approved by the secretary of state’s office for failure to meet standards in law for paid canvassers.

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The finding goes to the Supreme Court for its approval or rejection.

Safe Surgery Arkansas, a committee backed by ophthalmologists, needed 54,391 valid signatures to refer the 2019 law to voters. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, backed by optometrists, challenged the secretary of state’s certification of sufficient signatures.

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Hewett found that the secretary of state’s office had counted 51,911 invalid signatures gathered by the paid canvassers. They were invalid, he said, because the canvassers had not been certified as having “passed” a criminal background check required by law. A statement submitted by the drive said only that state and federal checks had been “acquired.”

Hewett rejected other arguments made against the referendum by the optometrists’ group, including alleged misleading statements by canvassers about the law and actions in the handling of petition documents by a secretary of state employee.

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Arkansans for Healthy Eyes issued a statement:

“We are pleased with the final report,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. “The findings speak for themselves- the opposition did not follow petition requirements, leaving 51,911 signatures invalid, and therefore the measure does not qualify for the ballot.  Of course, we will await the Court’s final say in the matter.  In the meantime, we remain hopeful Arkansas patients will finally be able to benefit from the improved access to quality eye care Act 579 was put in place to provide,” said Farmer. 

Here’s Hewett’s finding.

Here’s the statement from Safe Surgery:

“While we appreciate the special master’s hard work on this matter, we don’t believe a dispute over one word is a sufficient legal basis to silence the voices of tens of thousands of Arkansans who deserve the right to vote on this important health care policy in November,” said Dr. Laurie Barber, chairman of Safe Surgery Arkansas. “We are confident the Supreme Court will allow the signatures to remain and will protect Arkansas’s constitutional right to a referendum.”