Federal Judge Timothy Brooks heard arguments but didn’t rule today on a last-ditch try by the League of Women Voters of Arkansas to breathe life back into two proposed constitutional amendments blocked from the ballot by Secretary of State John Thurston and then the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The amendments were ruled off because the paid canvassing company that gathered signatures submitted affidavits that said canvassers had “acquired” rather than “passed” state and federal criminal background checks by the State Police. This language was used apparently because the State Police cannot perform federal background checks. The state statute essentially can’t be complied with, strictly speaking. None of the canvassers had criminal records.
The appeal to federal court argues that the First Amendment rights of people who signed the petitions, including League leader Bonnie Miller, have been unconstitutionally restricted by the government’s decisions. They argue they’ve lost the right to petition the government on the strength of a statute that can’t be complied with.
In seeking a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs asked the judge to allow Thurston to certify whether signature requirements were otherwise met on amendments to create a nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission and to end partisan primaries in favor of open primaries with runoffs decided by ranked-choice voting.
The Arkansas Supreme Court decision upholding Thurston’s refusal to certify the amendments for the ballot came on a strict interpretation of the Arkansas law on paid canvassers and background checks. Another case with a similar argument is still pending before the Supreme Court — whether a referendum on a law expanding surgery options for optometrists complied with the background check law.
Brooks didn’t give an indication when he’d rule. But time is important. The deadline for printing ballots for overseas and military voters is later this week. Those amendments currently don’t appear on any ballots. Thurston did certify the eye surgery amendment and it’s currently on the ballot. It could remain there but a court could rule its votes shouldn’t be counted.