Voter Efforts in Arkansas

APRIL 2020

• Arkansas: Arkansas' Republican-run legislature has voted down a proposal by Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott to eliminate the state's excuse requirement to vote absentee for the November general elections. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who waived the requirement in recent runoffs, says he's open to similar waivers if the pandemic remains a threat in the fall.

• Arkansas: A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit seeking to extend the deadline by which absentee ballots cast in Arkansas' March 31 primary runoffs must be received in order to count. Under Arkansas law, absentee ballots must be received by Election Day. The suit, backed by the NAACP, had asked that officials accept any ballots they receive within at least 10 days of the election, so long as they are postmarked by Election Day. The judge said that plaintiffs lacked standing and left the current deadline in place.

MARCH 2020

• Arkansas: Officials in Arkansas have announced that they will not postpone the state's March 31 runoffs, making it the only state in the nation still set to conduct primary elections in the month of March. While no congressional or statewide elections will host runoffs, 12 counties that make up about 30% of the state's population will do so for local races. Administrators say they have reduced the number of polling locations and are encouraging voters to cast ballots absentee. While Arkansas normally requires an excuse to vote absentee, the state's Board of Election Commissioners has said all voters may request absentee ballots for the runoffs due to the coronavirus.

Separately, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit on Friday seeking to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day so long as they are received no more than 10 days later; currently, the state disqualifies all ballots not received by Election Day. The plaintiffs argue that the current deadline illegally discriminates against black voters.

• Arkansas: Redistricting reformers have filed a ballot initiative that would amend Arkansas' constitution to create an independent citizens' commission for congressional and legislative redistricting and are seeing to put it on November's ballot.

Currently, the Republican-run legislature would control congressional redistricting following this year's census, and an all-GOP board made up of the governor, secretary of state, and attorney general would oversee legislative redistricting. If this measure qualifies for the ballot and passes, it would prevent Republicans from using their first-ever opportunity to gerrymander the state.

The proposed measure would create a commission whose nine members cannot have been an elected official, lobbyist, party official, or an employee or relative of such people within the last five years. The state Supreme Court's chief justice would appoint a panel of three retired state judges to help select the commissioners from among citizen applicants, and they would group the applicants into three pools of 30 people each, one for Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters.

The governor and legislative leaders of both parties in each chamber would each be able to strike two applicants from each pool, whittling each group down to 20 names. The judges would then randomly select three applicants from each of the pools to choose the commission's nine members. It would take the vote of six members to pass any map, including a two-member majority from each of the three party groups.

The commissioners would be bound by several criteria when drawing maps, including that they be drawn using the total population and don't unduly favor any party. Commissions would also be required to consider, in order of priority, a number of other factors: contiguity; protection of racial and language minorities; barring county or city divisions except to satisfy the other criteria; compactness; and political competitiveness.

To qualify for the ballot, backers must obtain roughly 89,000 voter signatures, including signatures equal to 5% of the last gubernatorial vote in 15 of Arkansas' 75 counties. Importantly, 2020 could be the last chance to use an initiative to reform redistricting, since Republican lawmakers have placed a constitutional amendment of their own on November's ballot that could make it all but impossible to pass progressive-oriented ballot measures. The GOP's proposal would require that organizers gather signatures equal to 5% of the gubernatorial vote in 45 counties instead of just 15. Democratic voters, as Republican legislators are well aware, are heavily concentrated in a small number of counties.


• Arkansas, Nebraska: Redistricting reformers have filed initiatives in Arkansas and Nebraska that would set up independent redistricting commissions for congressional and legislative map-drawing in each state, with the goal of getting on the November ballot. If these measures pass, they would prevent Republicans from gerrymandering after 2020. We will bring you more details on both proposals in our next newsletter.

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