Federal Judge Timothy Brooks late Tuesday put an end to efforts to amend the Arkansas Constitution with proposals to have non-partisan legislative redistricting and to alter the primary election process in a way that would ensure each election winner was decided by a majority of voters. Bottom line: Regnat pecunia. Or: Money talks.
Brooks denied a request for an injunction from the League of Women Voters seeking to require Republican Secretary of State John Thurston to put the amendments on the ballot pending resolution of their argument that their First Amendment rights to petition government had been abridged by Thurston’s decision and the Arkansas Supreme Court decision upholding him. Brooks said the lawsuit wasn’t likely to prevail on the merits.
This is the end of the line for those amendments, I’ve confirmed. Comment from Bonnie Miller, leader of the League:
While we respectfully disagree with Judge Brooks’ decision, we respect the court and acknowledge the impact of his decision. We will not give up our pursuit for fair, transparent redistricting in Arkansas. Over 150,000 Arkansas voters have been disenfranchised from their right to vote on a citizen- initiated constitutional amendment to end partisan gerrymandering in our state. This process has shown that special interests have too much influence at every level of state government. As voters, we must continuously work to have our voices heard. We will continue this fight beyond November to hold our elected officials accountable to the people.
The federal case was always a long shot. Popular petitions are not required by the U.S. Constitution. Only a minority of states, including Arkansas, allow them. They are useful. An increase in the minimum wage, medical marijuana and expansion of casino gambling are recent examples.
But the ruling Republican Party and its allies in big business HATE popular petition drives and have worked to increasingly make them practically impossible, without outright repeal of the constitutional petitioning right.
A recent achievement was a sloppy law requiring criminal background checks of paid petition canvassers. The statute seems to require the State Police to perform both state and federal background checks, a job it is legally unable to do. It may only perform state background checks. Canvassers for these petitions DID pass state background checks, but affidavits submitted with their applications to work said they had “acquired” rather than “passed” background checks, the word used in the statute. On the strength of one word, which couldn’t be met, the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed the petitions shouldn’t be counted.
Thurston had earlier approved a Republican strategy group-backed referendum to repeal an optometrist surgery bill that used similar canvassing statements. That referendum should fall before the Supreme Court as soon as tomorrow.
But back to money. Brooks happened to rule the same day a new financial report was filed by “Arkansans for Transparency,” the Republican committee formed to defeat the redistricting and primary election measures. The Republican Party likes being in control of these processes.
The committee spent $386,000 fighting the measure, mostly paying lawyers from the Friday and Wright law firms to wage the legal battle that led to the disqualification of the amendments. The final bills in August were paid by a pair of billionaires, $100,000 from investment tycoon Warren Stephens and $80,000 from the reclusive ultraconservative backer of Republican causes, poultry magnate Ronnie Cameron of Little Rock (recently profiled in devastating fashion by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer). Earlier contributors included the Republican Majority Fund of Alexandria, Va., a darkish money national effort, and Tom Cotton’s PAC, another sump for national money. I mention these because the Republicans fought the good government amendments in part on the strength of financial support provided by a nonprofit created by a progressive wealthy Texan.
The “outsider” influence is being used by a similar group of Arkansas Republicans for a committee dedicated to passing Issue 3, which will further cripple the people’s ability to pass popular initiatives. The state business lobby, which gets all the constitutional and statutory changes it needs from the Republican legislature it controls, is also behind a committee working to cripple if not outright execute ballot petitions. That committee, Arkansans for Arkansans, hasn’t yet disclosed the sources of its money. But there’s plenty to be had.
Some 150,000 registered Arkansas voters signed petitions amidst a pandemic to put these measures on the ballot. In addition to redistricting, the other measure, with similar financial support, would have replaced partisan primaries with an open primary and a general election determined by ranked-choice voting.
Polls showed the measures enjoyed popular support. Arkansas Voters First was the name of the group formed to end gerrymandered legislative districts.
Special interests and money came first.
PS: David Couch, one of the attorneys in this losing cause, has an appeal pending with the Arkansas Supreme Court of a lower court’s refusal to take Issue 3 off the ballot. As a legislative-referred amendment, it is accorded more deference in sloppy, misleading and ambiguous language than those proposed by the people.