Analysis: Rulings leave unanswered questions on canvassers

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - By disqualifying proposals to legalize casinos and limit medical lawsuit damages from the November ballot, Arkansas' highest court punted on questions surrounding a state law aimed at keeping track of workers paid to gather signatures for initiatives. Justices also may have opened new questions for how the language of future ballot measures will be crafted and approved.               

The court's rulings earlier this month against the two proposed constitutional amendments hinged on problems justices found in the language that would go before voters, not the argument that thousands of signatures should have been tossed for each one. The court, meanwhile, is still weighing a third lawsuit against a medical marijuana initiative that also challenges its petitions.               

Both the casino and medical lawsuits provisions faced challenges from opponents who said the groups behind the measures didn't comply with a state law requiring paid canvassers to register with the state and undergo criminal background checks, but justices didn't address those concerns. Instead, they determined both ballot titles didn't adequately inform voters.               

For casinos, that hinged on the argument that the ballot title did not inform Arkansas voters that the measure would violate a federal law prohibiting sports gambling in the state. Justices last week said they wouldn't reconsider that decision, despite casino supporters saying sports betting wasn't a fundamental part of the proposal.              

"The ballot title in this case does not honestly and accurately reflect what is contained in the proposed amendment," the court said in its ruling disqualifying the measure.              

The court likewise cited problems with the ballot title for the proposed amendment which would have allowed the Legislature to set a minimum $250,000 limit on non-economic damages awarded in lawsuits against health care providers. The problem, justices said, is the proposal didn't define non-economic damages.              

"Without a definition of this term, the voter would be in the position of guessing as to the effect his or her vote would have unless he or she is an expert in the legal field," the court said in its ruling.               

In both cases, the rulings may prompt a stricter review by the attorney general's office of ballot measures it's been asked to certify.               

With the decisions, justices sidestepped questions surrounding the signatures submitted for both proposals as well as the canvasser restrictions. Retired judges appointed by the court to review petitions for both measures had cited concerns about the petitions submitted. The judge reviewing the medical lawsuits measure said all of its signatures could be invalidated since the group behind it didn't certify in writing that its paid canvassers had passed a criminal background check. The judge reviewing the casinos proposal said election officials were wrong to approve it for the ballot, citing problems with how some canvassers were identified.               

The court has rejected an attempt to disqualify one proposal to legalize medical marijuana, but a challenge to a competing medical pot measure is still pending before the court. The retired judge reviewing petitions in that case told the court more than enough valid signatures were submitted for the measure.               

How the court rules in that case could signal how much of a roadblock the canvasser restrictions will be. The campaigns behind four ballot measures that were challenged in court all relied on paid canvassers and reported hiring hundreds of workers to gather signatures across the state. The canvasser registry is part of a 2013 law enacted in response to fraudulent signatures submitted in support of ballot measures in the 2012 election. The group behind the medical lawsuit limits proposal had asked the court to toss out the canvasser restrictions.               

For now, they're leaving unanswered what standard election officials will be held to in enforcing the canvasser restrictions in future election years.               

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 Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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