Judge eases Arkansas petition signature rule due to pandemic

Local News

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked the state from enforcing a requirement for signatures on initiative petitions to be witnessed in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes on Monday issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing the witness requirement. Holmes also blocked a requirement that canvassers sign an affidavit in the presence of a notary.

Holmes, however, declined to push back the state’s July 3 deadline for submitting petitions by a month or to allow the use of electronic signatures.

Holmes issued the ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by Arkansas Voters First, which is trying to get a redistricting measure on the ballot. The group sued the state last month and said the pandemic has made it nearly impossible to collect the 89,151 signatures from registered voters needed to qualify for the November election.

Removing the in-person signature requirements will help initiative campaigns to continue while following social distancing guidelines, David Couch, an attorney for the group, said.

“This allows people to sign the petition at a distance,” Couch said.

Arkansas is among several states where initiative campaigns say stay-at-home orders and restrictions on mass gatherings have halted signature-gathering efforts. Arkansas did not have a stay-at-home order, but had other restrictions in place that the state has recently begun rolling back.

Brett Kincaid, campaign manager for the redistricting group, said it was working to resume gathering signatures by the end of the week under the guidelines set out by the ruling.

“We still have work to do, but we are confident now that all Arkansas voters will get their say in November,” he said in a statement.

A spokeswoman said Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was reviewing the decision to determine the next step.

The group’s proposed constitutional amendment would put a nine-member commission in charge of redrawing congressional and legislative districts.

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