A spokesperson for Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students said Tuesday the group now believes it reached a critical threshold of 54,422 signatures when it turned in petition sheets to the Arkansas Secretary of State on Monday evening, despite earlier statements to the contrary.
CAPES has been collecting voter signatures at an accelerating rate over the past week as part of its effort to put a repeal of the LEARNS Act on the November 2024 ballot. The group had to reach the 54,422 mark by 5 p.m., July 31 in order to keep its hopes of a referendum alive. CAPES director Steve Grappe said Monday evening the group’s final tally of signatures was just 375 signatures short of the necessary number, though he could be added that they “could be off.”
Grappe said Tuesday afternoon the group reversed that initial, pessimistic assessment upon reviewing its own numbers last night.
“We had a central counting location off Main Street in Little Rock, and we had a pretty good system set up for going through petitions,” Grappe said. Organizers would fill boxes with completed stacks of petitions, write the number of signatures on the top of the box and add figures to a spreadsheet, he said.
The count wasn’t always entirely accurate, and as the final deadline approached, things became more chaotic. “By the time we got to 4 o’clock, there were probably 75 to 100 people in the room processing these things,” Grappe said. “We did a countdown because we had to be out of that room by 4:15 to get over to the secretary of state’s office in time. …We had people literally throwing things in boxes while we were counting down: ‘Two minutes! One minute!'” At least one canvasser from outside Little Rock arrived with a box of petitions after 4:15, he said.
When CAPES delivered its boxes of signatures to the secretary of state’s office, Grappe said, his best count was 375 short of the goal. Another CAPES member, Trevor McGarrah, took pictures of the boxes as they were being carried inside.
“When he got back late last night, he brings it to our attention that the numbers aren’t matching,” Grappe said. “So we started looking at pictures.” They discovered a number written on a box from Pulaski County was about 300 more than what was entered into the spreadsheet; Benton County’s numbers were also bigger than expected. When they saw their numbers were “up about 400,” Grappe said, he texted the secretary of state’s office and told them CAPES now believed they had met the requisite number of signatures.
Given the evident uncertainty in the last-minute scramble, it’s possible those undercounted numbers could be balanced out in the other direction by overcounts. But if Capes did hit the 54,422 threshold — and if it also met a separate requirement to collect half of those signatures from a certain number of counties around the state — it would qualify for a “cure period” to keep canvassing. (It’s inevitable that some signatures on the sheets the group just submitted will be considered invalid for one reason or another, so the cure period gives a group some time to make up the difference.)
Chris Powell, a spokesman for the secretary of state, confirmed in an email today that the office’s staff was tallying signatures today but gave no sense of when it might be complete.
“We started counting this morning. Once we have an official count, we will draft a letter to the sponsor. The letter will be made public shortly thereafter,” he said.
Grappe said CAPES is now waiting for word. “I think we’ll know whether we’re in the game or not sometime this week,” he said.