Federal judge declares six sections of Arkansas election law unconstitutional

A federal judge in Little Rock has declared unconstitutional six sections of Arkansas Election Law relating to “new political parties.”

In an opinion and order filed Friday, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker sided with the Arkansas Libertarian Party in her lawsuit against Secretary of State John Thurston.

“Court declares unconstitutional Arkansas Code Annotated §§ 7–7–101, 7–7–203(c)(1), 7–7–205(a)(2), 7–7–205( a)(4)(B), 7–7–205(a)(6) and 7–7–205(c)(3) both facially and applied to plaintiffs for the 2019-2020 cycles and all cycles subsequent Arkansas general elections,” Baker writes.

She prohibited Thurston from enforcing these sections of state law.

Among other things, the changes implemented by the sections mentioned above effectively increased the signature requirement to get a party candidate on the statewide ballot from 10,000 to 3% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which would have been 26,746. based on the 2018 election. (The 10,000 signature option has been eliminated.)

The statutes also increased deadlines, shortened the time for candidate petition campaigns, and required new political parties to qualify candidates through a convention.

In his 83-page opinion and order, Baker wrote: “The Court finds that because of the combined effect of the anticipated motion deadline, the 90-day motion period, the three percent of the petition, the requirement that new party candidates declare before candidates from major parties are selected, and that new parties select their candidates at a party convention and not at a primary or second election In turn, the Court grants plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. »

Baker determined that plaintiffs have met their burden of demonstrating that the six sections of state law “collectively impose a heavy burden on plaintiffs’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and that the State of Arkansas is unable to demonstrate that the laws are narrowly crafted to serve a compelling public interest.”

In Friday’s ruling, Baker also denied a motion for summary judgment from Thurston.

“For decades, the law has required a minimum level of support for third parties to be on the ballot,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Saturday. “The court has ruled this unconstitutional. I will review this decision with the Attorney General and assess whether this matter should be appealed.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by the Arkansas Libertarian Party and five people, including gubernatorial candidate Ricky Harrington Jr. and Michael Pakko of Little Rock, chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party.

Pakko said it was “the best result we could have hoped for”.

“Judge Baker has made every case and ruled in our favor on every substantive issue in the case,” Pakko said. “If we ever have to petition again in the future, this decision ensures that we will not be burdened with these objectionable delays and restrictions. They have been declared unconstitutional.”

Baker granted a preliminary injunction in 2019, temporarily barring Thurston from enforcing the six sections of the law that were at the center of the lawsuit. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Baker’s preliminary injunction order on June 18, 2020.

Prior to 2019, and since 2007, when the requirement to form a new political party in Arkansas became 10,000 valid petition signatures or 3% of the governor’s last vote, only two minor political parties successfully applied for the petition. recognition of a new party in Arkansas – the Libertarian Party in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the Green Party in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, according to Baker’s order.

“The Arkansas Libertarian Party was the only minor political party to gain political party recognition and voting status in Arkansas by petitioning for the general election held in Arkansas in November 2016 and November 2018,” Baker wrote.

It was also the only minor political party to gain recognition of voting status in Arkansas by petitioning for the 2019–20 election cycle.

“The Arkansas Libertarian Party is on the ballot in 2022, having successfully filed a motion under Judge Baker’s preliminary injunction issued in 2019,” the party said in a press release Saturday. The party “plans to work with the next legislature to help craft a more fair and equitable process for political parties to have access to the ballot in Arkansas.”

In his court testimony, Pakko said there was some perception that the Arkansas Libertarian Party was siphoning off votes from the Republican Party, although he noted he had not seen documented evidence. of this phenomenon, according to the order of Baker.

“Dr. Pakko also testified to his past experience with petition campaigns,” she wrote. “He noted that he had personally collected signatures and that the 10,000 signature requirement was a difficult undertaking. He testified that there are limited places to solicit signatures and a large workforce is required to collect 10,000 signatures in 90 days. He admitted that this is difficult to accomplish with volunteer effort alone, so some professional canvassers are paid with donated money.”

“Parties are discussing whether severe weather and pandemic outbreaks may have a negative effect on approaching people to sign petitions for recognition of new political parties,” Baker wrote. “Plaintiffs argue that it is rare in a 90-day period in Dr. Pakko’s experience not to lose a certain number of days due to bad weather or pandemic outbreaks.”

To retain ballot access as a political party through 2024, Arkansas election law requires the Libertarian Party candidate for governor to receive at least 3% of the vote in the November 8 general election, according to the party’s press release. Otherwise, they will have to submit a petition to become a “new political party” again.

The Arkansas Libertarian Party is also fielding candidates for other state offices, as well as at the local and federal levels, for the November elections.

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