On July 3, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a preliminary injunction against Arkansas Act 164 in response to a lawsuit filed by the state’s Libertarian Party, which claimed the act created an undue burden on third parties.
Prior to Act 164, if a third party received less than three percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election, the party had a 90-day window to collect 10,000 signatures to place a candidate on the next election’s ballot. Act 164 amended this prerequisite, instead requiring a number of signatures equal to 3 percent of the total votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, also within a 90-day period.
This act, passed in February, raised the number of signatures needed for a third party, such as the Libertarian Party, to place a candidate on the 2020 ballot from 10,000 to 26,746. In its lawsuit, the Libertarian Party argued that this new change was onerous, claiming it was a clear attempt by the Republican Party to unfairly restrict any political competition in the state. In her ruling, Judge Baker agreed. “There is no record evidence before the Court that explains the State’s interest – let alone a compelling one – in requiring new political parties to meet the three percent requirement, file a petition more than a year in advance of the general election, and collect signatures in a 90-day window.”
The injunction prevents the Secretary of State from enforcing the 3 percent signature requirement.
Act 164 was sponsored by Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado). When asked about the injunction, he said the challenge was expected. He also responded to the Court’s assertion that Act 164 serves no compelling interest was “patently false. This is legislating from the bench… having a minimum requirement for a party to be recognized is a good election practice, I think it’s within the constitutional rights of the legislature to enact that law to make sure we have fair and secure elections.”
When asked about why increasing the minimum of signatures was necessary, Garner replied, “That shows why the courts shouldn’t get involved. 10,000 is an artificially-created number. Putting [the requirement] at 3 percent would reflect the population as it grows. In 100 years, we may have double the population, and the requirement should reflect that.”
Sen. Garner also denied that Act 164 was meant to restrict political competition between parties and solidify the Republican Party’s hold on Arkansas. “It is not an onerous requirement. Anyone can run as an independent, when you’re gonna (sic) be recognized as a political party, a party carries more weight with the electorate at large,” says Garner, “This act helps keep the electoral process safe and secure. We’ve seen outside money groups come in and get signatures relatively easily, this could lead to an abused process with numerous “political parties” being on the ballot.” Garner’s assertion that the policy requiring 10,000 signatures to run a party candidate could lead to a swamped ballot is questionable. In the past electoral cycle, 54% of candidates for the Arkansas House of Representatives ran without opposition, and 57% of state senate candidates also ran unopposed.
When questioned about whether independents have a strong chance, Garner replied, “Most people vote for the person, not the party, [Act 146] allows people who want to do that to run, it doesn’t prohibit anyone from running but it does stop people from claiming a political party if they can’t gain a minimum amount of support.”
Act 146 does not impact the ballot access of independent candidates, who still need 10,000 signatures. However, as of July 2019, there are no independent members within the Arkansas legislature. Additionally, in the past century, Arkansas has elected only five independent or third-party candidates to the Arkansas House of Representatives and one independent to the state senate. There has been only one third-party governor in Arkansas history, one Isaac Murphy, who was elected in 1863 after the Confederate government fled the state.
The Libertarian Party has already collected 18,000 signatures before the ruling. A full hearing for the act has been scheduled for May 11, 2020, officially titled Libertarian Party of Arkansas et al v. Thurston.