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Joyce Elliott for Congress US House of Representatives
A federal district court has refused to issue a preliminary injunction that would have blocked a state law that Republican officials and the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court had used to disqualify all of the signatures that redistricting reformers had submitted for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, prompting proponents to give up on winning a 2020 ballot measure battle. Although the measure remains on the ballot, its votes won't be valid.
While redistricting reformers vowed to pursue another ballot initiative in a future election, this ruling means Republicans will get to gerrymander the state after 2020 for the first time since Reconstruction (if not ever). Even worse, it's a potentially fatal setback for the reform movement going forward because of a measure Republicans have themselves referred to November's ballot to effectively make it impossible to attempt future ballot initiatives without supermajority support that includes many white conservative voters.
The GOP's November ballot measure would amend Arkansas' constitution to require supporters meet the signature threshold in 45 of 75 counties instead of the current 15. However, because Democrats, Black voters, and a majority of the state's population overall are heavily concentrated in a minority of counties, this requires initiative proponents to obtain signatures in heavily white and therefore conservative counties, making it harder for progressives but not conservatives to put initiatives on the ballot.
• Arkansas: Voting rights advocates have filed a suit in federal court challenging the state's lack of signature cure options for mail voters.
• Arkansas: Republican Secretary of State John Thurston has certified two democracy reform ballot initiatives for November's ballot. However, ongoing litigation before the Arkansas Supreme Court could disqualify both measures, including one to establish an independent redistricting commission and another to create a "top-four" primary with an instant-runoff general election.
The lawsuit stems from Thurston's attempt to reject the petitions collected to put the measures on the ballot as allegedly invalid. He contends that signature-gatherers for both initiatives had not "passed" background checks even though the groups certified that they had "acquired" such checks. If the state Supreme Court disagrees and overrules Thurston, voters will get a chance to weigh in on the two measures on Election Day.
• Arkansas: Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has issued an executive order allowing all Arkansas voters to request absentee ballots for the November general election due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Hutchinson said he would not issue such an order, though at the time he said all voters could vote absentee.
• Arkansas: Backers of an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission have announced that they have filed 50,000 more signatures to place their measure on the November ballot, on top of the 100,000 they had already submitted.
Last month, the Arkansas Supreme Court gave organizers a 30-day extension to collect more signatures while it reviews their appeal of GOP Secretary of State John Thurston's decision to reject all of their signatures as allegedly invalid. Thurston contends that signature-gatherers for this initiative, as well as a separate measure to adopt a form of instant-runoff voting, had not "passed" background checks even though the groups certified that they had "acquired" such checks.
If Thurston's decision is overturned, redistricting reformers should have a sufficient cushion to ensure that at least 89,000 of their signatures are valid statewide, as well as a number equivalent to 5% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in at least 15 of Arkansas' 75 counties.
A federal appeals court had recently overturned a lower court ruling allowing supporters to gather signatures without them needing to be witnessed in-person, which would let voters sign petitions at home and mail them in. Plaintiffs have not indicated whether they would appeal that decision, but their effort to move ahead with traditional signature collection indicates they do not view it as a prohibitive obstacle.
Arkansas: A panel of three GOP-appointed judges on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously overturned a district court ruling that made it easier for redistricting reformers to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The lower court's ruling, which the 8th Circuit had already temporarily blocked while the appeal proceeded, had suspended a requirement that voter petition signatures be witnessed in-person, enabling supporters to sign the forms at home and mail them in.
Republican Secretary of State John Thurston had recently thrown out all signatures gathered for the redistricting reform initiative and a separate initiative to adopt a variant of instant-runoff voting, and initiative supporters are separately challenging that decision in state court. Organizers have not announced whether they will appeal this latest federal court ruling.
• Arkansas: Redistricting reformers have submitted approximately 99,000 signatures to place an amendment on November's ballot to establish an independent redistricting commission. About 89,000 signatures must be found valid, including an amount equivalent to 5% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in at least 15 of Arkansas' 75 counties.
Submitting only 10,000 more signatures than the minimum needed gives the initiative's backers less margin for error than is typically advised for such an effort, and even supporters estimate that only around 75,000 of their signatures are probably valid. However, Arkansas gives organizers one additional month to gather signatures if their initial submission includes valid signatures equivalent to 75% of the total needed both statewide and in at least 15 counties.
Supporters are waging an ongoing federal lawsuit seeking to suspend a requirement that initiative petition signatures be witnessed or notarized in-person. A lower court had temporarily blocked the requirement, allowing voters to sign petitions at home and mail them in, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a short-term stay of that ruling last month while it decides whether to issue a lengthier stay while the GOP's appeal proceeds.
Separately, electoral reform supporters have submitted roughly 95,000 signatures for a different constitutional amendment that would establish a "top-four" primary. Under this system, all candidates regardless of party would compete on a single primary ballot, with the top four finishers advancing to a general election that would be decided by instant-runoff voting.
• 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.
• 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.