- GRASS ROOTS: Volunteer Bernadette Baltz Ungerank solicits signatures for a wet/dry petition in Randolph County.
Access to the ballot and petitioning the government are rights enshrined in the founding documents of the United States. But up in Randolph County in Northeast Arkansas, organizers of a grass-roots effort to get the question of alcohol sales on the ballot in November have filed suit, saying hundreds of valid signatures on their petitions were rejected under questionable circumstances.
Linda Bowlin is the spokesperson and founder for Keep Revenue in Randolph County, a group pushing for a wet/dry vote there in November. Bowlin, who previously led a failed petition drive to get the issue on the 2014 ballot in Randolph County, said any effort to vote a county "wet" in Arkansas was already an uphill climb, thanks to quirks of the law that apply solely to petitioning for alcohol.
State law on petitions to bring alcohol sales to a "dry" county requires that groups collect signatures from 38 percent of the registered voters in the county, as opposed to 15 percent for any other cause. Bowlin said that as of June 1, the key date for petitioning for the November election, Randolph County had 10,034 registered voters. That means volunteers with Keep Revenue in Randolph County had to collect 3,813 signatures, a number Bowlin called "massive" in a county that saw only around 2,900 voters in the presidential primaries earlier this year.
"Every other initiative is a low percentage of who voted for the county judge last time or, in statewide, who voted for the governor last time," Bowlin said. "It's a difference between 750 signatures for anything else, versus 3,813 for alcohol. That's thanks to the legislature."
Nonetheless, Bowlin and her group thought they had the required signatures when they turned in petitions with over 4,000 signatures to Randolph County Clerk Rhonda Blevins on July 20. The clerk had 10 days to decide whether the signatures passed muster, Bowlin said, and on the ninth day, she dropped a bombshell, rejecting 940 signatures.
The bulk of those were signatures on 115 pages that were thrown out because of a provision in the local option election law that says any petition page that includes even a single signature from someone who lives outside the county must be thrown out, and all the other names on the page with it. For example, Bowlin said, the page containing her own signature was thrown out because someone from Black Rock in Lawrence County signed on her page. Bowlin notes that in April 2015, that stipulation of the statewide petitioning law (though not specifically the law applying to single-county petitioning) was found to be unconstitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court decision in McDaniel v. Spencer. However, the same month, the legislature amended the law concerning countywide wet/dry petitioning to include a provision for throwing out a whole page if out-of-county signers are included on that page, "unless each signature of a petitioner from another county is clearly stricken before the filing of the petition with the county clerk."
The out-of-county signers on the Randolph County petitions weren't stricken before being turned in, and when Bowlin's group asked for the 115 pages back so those names could be struck to allow the valid signatures to be processed, the request was denied.
In hundreds of other cases, Bowlin said, Blevins and her staff threw out names on the petition for what was termed "bad signature." "She took it upon herself to compare the signature on the petition page with the signature of the voter registration card that the person might have filled out 30 years ago," Bowlin said. "There's no place in the law that's required to be done. No place at all in the law. We were left with 207 thrown out for bad signature, not knowing how in the world to cure it. Do I go back to you and say 'sign again?' "In other cases, Blevins threw out still more names for "insufficient data" because the three fields on the petition — name, address and date of birth — didn't exactly match the data the clerk had on file. "It's best practice in petitioning that if the name and the date of birth matches, or the name and the address matches, then it's a valid signature. If you can identify the voter with two fields, you're fine," Bowlin said. "Our clerk was requiring all three fields to be perfect. How do you cure that? She used inadequate data. So how do we get to these people to cure this?" In at least a few cases, Bowlin said, names were thrown out because instead of including the town name "Pocahontas" when writing out their address, signers wrote a double quotation mark, widely recognized as meaning "ditto" or "same as above," or because the signers who go by their middle name put that name in the space for their first name.
In emails between the Arkansas secretary of state's office and Blevins dated June 16, obtained via the state Freedom of Information Act, Blevins was told, "As best practice, we verify two pieces of information before we validate a signature. That could be a name and DOB, or a name and address, or any other combination."
"We spun our wheels for seven and a half days, trying to cure things like that," Bowlin said, an effort that included trying to locate people who were struck and get them to sign the petition again.
Two sometimes contentious town meetings were held about the issue on Aug. 2 and 3, the second of which was attended by Blevins. As detailed in reporting by the community news blog NEA Report (neareport.com), Blevins told the citizens who came to the meeting that she was "trying to follow the law" without allowing her personal beliefs on the issue to intrude.
As also first noted by NEA Report, Blevins is an evangelical Christian who, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned bans on gay marriage in 2015, told a reporter for KARK-TV, Channel 4, that she was waiting on confirmation from God before she could decide whether to issue marriage licenses to LGBT applicants. "God will direct me on what I will do," Blevins reportedly said. "He'll guide me on if it's OK to issue the license or not OK to issue the license."
Last Friday afternoon, Blevins issued her final ruling on the wet/dry petitioning issue, saying that the signature effort had fallen 361 signatures short of making the ballot; she'd declined to count signatures from the 115 pages that included a signature from someone who lived outside Randolph County. Bowlin and her group immediately filed suit. Bowlin said that, with the election fast approaching, they're hoping for an expedited court date in late August.
Reached at her office, Blevins said that her office had followed the law, including the law on throwing out the 115 pages that included an out-of-county signature.
"We didn't throw the whole page out just because we wanted to, like everybody has assumed or talked about," she said. "It's because the law states if there's one on there out of jurisdiction, you throw the whole page out." Asked about McDaniel v. Spencer, Blevins said that she wouldn't go into detail on it, because she was unsure and "I'll get it wrong."
"I'll just tell you that we attempted to verify every name on the petition that we had," she said. "Any signatures that were not counted were due to statutory qualifications. That's really about all I can say." She went on to note that all the signatures that were stricken for signatures that didn't match the voter registration cards on file were eventually put back in.
Blevins said she couldn't comment on the pending lawsuit. Asked whether her personal religious beliefs were the reason for any of the signatures on a petition to allow alcohol sales being thrown out, Blevins denied that was the case. "I've done my job and I followed the law," she said. "It's not personal. It's absolutely not personal."
Bowlin said she believes that, with an expedited court date, the issue can be resolved quickly enough to still make the November ballot if the ruling is in the petitioners' favor. She said bringing alcohol sales to the county is important to her because she wants to bring her county "into the light of the 21st century," but the effort has now become a voting rights issue as well.
"We don't always have 4,000 people vote in our elections," she said. "But that many people signed to get this on the ballot. They're being disenfranchised."