State Supreme Court Blocks Redistricting, Open Primary Measures

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ highest court on Thursday blocked two ballot measures proposed to overhaul the redistricting process and to create a new “ranked choice” voting system for most offices.

The Supreme Court sided with the secretary of state’s decision to reject the petitions submitted for the proposed constitutional amendments. Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, last month said the initiative campaigns did not comply with a state law requiring them to certify that their signature gatherers passed criminal background checks.

The groups argued that they complied with the background check requirement and accused the state of blocking them merely because the word “passed” wasn’t used in affidavits they submitted.

“The court had the opportunity to side with the people as the canvassers had clearly complied with the statute, but instead chose to refuse their rights by a thin technicality,” said Bonnie Miller, chair of Arkansas Voters First, the group behind the redistricting measure.

The group and Open Primaries Arkansas, which backed the other measure, said they were exploring further legal options.

The redistricting proposal would have put a nine-member commission in charge of redrawing congressional and legislative districts.

Arkansas’ congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years by the state Legislature, which is majority Republican. Legislative districts are redrawn by a three-person panel comprised of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, who are all Republicans.

Under the second proposal, candidates for most offices would have run in a single open primary and the top four candidates would advance to the general election. Voters would then rank their top choices one through four.

The proposed constitutional amendments needed at least 89,151 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify. Thurston’s office said it was pleased with the ruling and would use it for analyzing petitions in the future.

The measures faced heavy opposition from the state Republican Party and top GOP figures such as Sen. Tom Cotton, who had portrayed the proposals as a misleading effort by Democrats to reclaim power.

“Today was a good day for transparency, accountability, and voters here in Arkansas,” state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said in a statement. 

The only justice to rule in favor of the measures, however, called the state law used to disqualify them unconstitutional.

“Today, the majority has disenfranchised more than 90,000 citizens,” Justice Jo Hart wrote in her dissent.

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