CBSN “Local Matters”: the battle over citizen ballot initiatives

Republican lawmakers in Arkansas are taking measures to limit the number of citizen ballot initiative proposals brought before voters each year. On Monday, CBSN “Local Matters” spoke with Andrew DeMillo, a correspondent for the Little Rock bureau of the Associated Press, who has covered the concerted effort on the part of Republicans to restrict ballot initiatives in Arkansas, which they claim give outside agencies too much influence in the state’s public policy.

“Over the last several years, Arkansas voters have approved any number of very progressive measures here,” DeMillo said on Monday. “And what we’ve started seeing here in Arkansas and other Republican states are lawmakers in reaction to this, putting more restrictions on the process.”

Voters in Arkansas have passed a number of initiatives — in 2016, they passed a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana, and in 2018 they voted to raise the minimum wage and legalize casino gambling. DeMillo told CBSN “Local Matters” that this year, Arkansas Republicans approved a measure that requires the signatures and wording for initiatives to be approved simultaneously. Critics suggest that this could cause groups to “waste time and money circulating petitions only to find out afterward that there was a problem with the wording that would disqualify” their initiative from the ballot, DeMillo wrote.

Other restrictions on the horizon include increasing the number of counties where signatures need to be gathered and moving up deadline dates for petitions to acquire those signatures.

DeMillo’s report for the Associated Press, citing the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, notes that lawmakers in 16 states have introduced more than 120 bills this year that would weaken the voter initiative process. Opponents of the GOP’s effort argue these actions by legislatures endanger democracy, while proponents say these measures are reigning in special interest groups from outside the state. As far as Republican lawmakers are concerned, without these restrictions, out-of-state groups can determine statewide policy without the input of elected lawmakers.

“The concern from GOP lawmakers is that the constitution is being changed so much that it’s effectively legislating, if you’re changing it that often,” DeMillo said on CBSN “Local Matters” on Monday. “You’re hearing similar complains in other states that the initiative process is becoming an easy target for out-of-state groups.”

But those who support citizen ballot initiatives argue it’s the citizens who are losing their ability to affect state laws with such restrictions.

“The issues that have passed here that have been approved in recent years have passed pretty strongly,” DeMillo told CBSN. “Medical marijuana had strong support, minimum wage had strong support, and it’s pretty surprising for a state like Arkansas which is a solidly red state.”

DeMillo said lawsuits are challenging these measures passed by the GOP legislature. He added there may be competing ballot measures in Arkansas that will seek to prevent these restrictions.

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