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The changing landscape of local option elections


After Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, Arkansas passed a couple of initiated acts that set up the framework for counties to be wet or dry. We've plugged along with more or less of the same process for generations. You gather a certain number of signatures (now 38% of registered voters) and turn them in at least 90 days before the general election every other November. If you turn in enough total signatures to qualify for the ballot, but not enough signatures are valid, you get a few extra days to collect more signatures.

Most initiative drives wind up hiring private firms to collect the thousands of signatures necessary to make the ballot, which is often funded by a mixture of donations from private individuals and retailers with a local physical presence.

Up until 2013, there were no extra requirements for paid canvassers; the Arkansas Constitution merely requires that someone be at least 18 years old to gather signatures. State law requires that the canvasser must witness a voter signing the petition, and a notary public must witness and verify the canvasser's signature on the petition. 

If the measure passes during the November election, your newly-wet county goes through a permitting process to determine who gets to open liquor stores in the county. The number of liquor stores is determined by the total population in the county as of the last census: 1 store for every 5,000 residents.

Applicants must pay a fee of $2,000, and the ABC holds a drawing to determine which applicants get the permits. Applicants who aren't selected in the drawing have half the fee refunded.

Changing Laws

Several new laws passed in the last two years changed the process. The first change was a new paid canvasser law that requires registration of paid canvassers with the Secretary of State. The registration process requires a certain amount of training for each paid canvasser. A Pulaski County Circuit Judge struck down the new law as violating the freedom of petition provision in the Arkansas Constitution. That case is currently on appeal, and a decision is expected within the next 2–4 weeks. The stricken provision only applied to the general statewide paid canvasser law, not the virtually identical law for local option elections. I expect that if Arkansas Supreme Court declares the general paid canvasser law unconstitutional, the same result would befall the local option paid canvasser law.

Another change occurred to the Arkansas Constitution in 2014. Thankfully, it only applies to statewide elections, and requires that any insufficient petition must contain at least 75% of the signatures required to be eligible for collection of more signatures during the cure period. The practical effect will be that petition drives will need to start earlier and not rely on the cure period to collect additional signatures. This new law could affect the viability of a statewide vote in 2016 to eliminate dry counties, which failed in the November 2014 election.

Several bills have been introduced in the current legislative session that would have an effect on any successful local option election. If the bills pass in time, they will likely affect both Columbia and Saline Counties, which voted wet in the 2014 general election.

HB 1024 would change the way liquor store permits are allocated. As indicated above, the law currently allows one liquor store for every 5,000 residents in the county. The new law would change that ratio to 1 store for every 7,500 people. In the 2010 census, Saline County had about 107,000 people, and Columbia County had about 24,500 people. If the law passes, Saline County will get 14 stores instead of 21, and Columbia County will get 3 stores instead of 4. Supporters of the bill say the current figure is too low and point to Benton County, where only half the available permits are being used. Opponents of the bill believe the effect would be to limit competition and increase prices to the end consumer.

SB 151 would increase the application fee from $2,000 to $25,000. Successful applicants would receive a refund of $21,000, and unsuccessful applicants would receive a refund of $23,000. Proponents argue the bill is designed to prevent family members, business partners, and friends from stacking the application process. Opponents believe the bill would prevent many people from applying for a permit in the first place.

We'll keep updating the blog as bills are introduced that could affect local option elections. Be sure and follow us to stay current on Arkansas local option law.