Proposed amendments requiring paper ballots, restricting absentee voting, resubmitted to attorney general's office

A group that wants to require elections in Arkansas to be conducted with paper ballots and also place greater restrictions on absentee voting resubmitted ballot language for a pair of constitutional amendments to the state attorney general's office on Tuesday.

It is the second attempt by Restore Election Integrity Arkansas to get the attorney general to sign off on its ballot language for the two proposed amendments.

One proposal would require elections to be conducted with hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots and would remove language from the state constitution that allows for elections to be conducted with voting machines.

The other would place greater limits on who could request an absentee ballot. Under the proposed amendment, "only registered voters who are unable to be present at the polls on election day because they are physically absent from the county in which they are registered to vote, or hospitalized, incarcerated, or in a long-term care facility within the county in which they are registered to vote" could request an absentee ballot.

The committee is led by Conrad Reynolds of Conway, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. French Hill in the 2022 Republican primary.

Clint Lancaster, an attorney for the group, resubmitted both proposals to the attorney general's office for review. Under Arkansas law, the attorney general has 10 business days to accept, reject or rewrite proposed ballot language for a constitutional amendment before a group can begin its signature collection effort to get it on the ballot.

If approved by the attorney general, a constitutional amendment will need 54,422 signatures from 50 counties to make it on the ballot for the 2024 general election.

The group also submitted its proposed constitutional amendments to the State Board of Election Commissioners. While state law gives the authority to the attorney general to review proposed amendments, Lancaster argues the authority lies with the Arkansas secretary of state. Lancaster said he submitted the proposed amendments to the board, asking them to certify the ballot titles and forward them to the secretary of state's office.

"Our plan is, if the secretary of state does not certify our ballot titles, we have the option to go straight to the Supreme Court with original jurisdiction," Lancaster said.

Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected an earlier version of the proposed amendments' ballot language last month.

Of the ballot title for the proposed amendment requiring paper ballots, Griffin said it was unclear how the amendment "would repeal the secrecy requirement" for individual votes under Section 2 of Amendment 50 of the state constitution.

The Republican attorney general also said it was unclear how the proposal could allow disabled voters to vote. Lancaster said the group cannot restrict the use of machines for disabled voters as they are a protected class under federal law.

Griffin also said multiple provisions of the proposed amendment on absentee voting were ambiguous.

Lancaster said he tweaked language in the amendments to comply with some of the suggestions made by the attorney general's office, although he is skeptical Griffin will sign off on the revised language. The amendment requiring paper ballots would require them to be counted by "human intelligence," something the updated ballot language provides a definition for.

The new petition also includes updated language on how the amendment would change the Arkansas Constitution's provision allowing for voting machines.

Reynolds has made advocacy for paper ballots into a cause, using his group, the Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative, to urge counties around the state to make the switch from machines to hand counting ballots. In December of last year, Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative sued the state challenging the legality of ballot counting machines. In September, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox dismissed the lawsuit. Earlier this month, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a motion to expedite consideration of the group's appeal of Fox's ruling.

So far, only Searcy County has made the switch. In March, the Cleburne County Quorum Court reversed an earlier decision to move the county to paper ballots.

During the regular legislative session in the spring, the state Legislature approved Act 350 of 2023 that requires counties that opt to use paper ballots instead of electronic voting equipment to be responsible for the costs.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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