The League of Women Voters of Arkansas has joined the legal fight over a proposed referendum on a law expanding the ability of optometrists to perform eye surgery.

A group financed by ophthalmologists has proposed a repeal of the law and Secretary of State John Thurston certified their petitions for the ballot. The optometrist group fighting the repeal has appealed certification of the referendum in part citing flaws in the paid canvassing drive that gathered signatures.

This is where the League comes in. It is backing, as part of the group Arkansas Voters First, a proposed amendment to create a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission. Its petitions were rejected by Thurston because he found flaws in paid canvassing, specifically a failure to meet the technical requirements in law for a criminal background check for canvassers.  A special master said yesterday that the statutory language requiring a State Police federal criminal record check is impossible to fulfill because the State Police can only do state background checks, but if the Supreme Court rules the unmeetable language must apply, it would kill the redistricting proposal along with another proposed amendment for open primaries.

The League has filed, and the Supreme Court accepted today, a friend of the court brief in the case over eye surgery. It argues that the court should uphold the signature certification in that case because it would apply to the redistricting amendment as well.


“The coalition worked tirelessly and against all pandemic odds to collect the 150,000 signatures, and for the court to just erase all that work based on a technicality is an attempt to disenfranchise Arkansans by ignoring their request for fair redistricting practices,” said Bonnie Miller, president of League of Women Voters of Washington County and chair of Arkansas Voters First. “The court must protect Arkansans’ constitutional right to petition and reconcile the spirit and intent of the state constitution by counting these signatures.”


Despite the challenges created by COVID-19, Arkansas Voters First had their ballot language approved and then certified before collecting 150,000 signatures that have been rejected by the Secretary of State John Thurston. The state claims that the signatures are not valid due to paid canvassers’ background checks being described as ‘acquired’ instead of ‘passed.’ Once resolved, the ballot initiative will allow Arkansas voters to vote for or against a state constitutional amendment to have an independent redistricting commission draw district lines in future redistricting cycles.


“As a part of our People Power Fair Maps campaign, we are pushing for redistricting reform in states across the country to appear on the ballot in November ahead of the 2021 redistricting cycle,” said Celina Stewart, Senior Director of Advocacy and Litigation for the League of Women Voters of the United States. “Refusing to count the signatures collected for the ballot initiative based on such a slim technicality is a shameful form of voter suppression that will affect the tens of thousands of the 150,000 voters who rightfully expect to be heard.”


The League’s brief focuses strictly on the question of language on background checks. If held to the statute language, all petitioners will suffer a loss of the ability to petition the government by use of paid workers, it says. (Didn’t the U.S. Supreme Court say money equals speech?)

Said the brief:


Sponsors need not parrot statutory “magic words” to comply with the statutes governing the use of paid canvassers. The meaning sponsors convey with the words they use controls. Requiring statutory “magic words” in the initiative and referendum process heightens the danger of frustrating the process by defeating the People’s reservation of the initiative and referendum powers with excessive hyper-technicalities, a large step beyond the “pure technicalities” with which members of this Court have expressed concern in the past.

Hypertechnical and impossible obstacles are EXACTLY what legislators intended in passing this legislation at the behest of the corporate lobby to squelch popular petitions. The business lobby prefers to tell the legislature what to put on the ballot when the Constitution needs amending to its desires.

UPDATE: The League also announced results of a poll today showing strong support for a vote on both the legislative redistricting proposal and open primary proposals.

“Arkansans are ready and eager to vote on these important measures that would reduce the control of politicians, party bosses, and lobbyists and increase the voice of citizens in how our government works,” said Bonnie Miller, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington County. “All of Arkansas is watching as the Supreme Court decides if the issues will be on the ballot Nov. 3.”

Following are the results:

Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution provides a process by which voters may propose statewide or local legislative measures or acts and statewide amendments to the Constitution. Do you support or oppose these constitutional powers for Arkansas voters?

Support: 72%
Oppose: 5%
Don’t know: 23%


After having the redistricting and open primary proposals described, voters were asked “Regardless of whether you would vote yes or no on these ballot measures, do you think the people of Arkansas should be allowed to vote on them?”

Yes: 89%
No: 3%
Don’t know: 8%