LITTLE ROCK — Hundreds of paid workers have been gathering signatures around Arkansas and the state's airwaves have been flooded with TV ads as initiative campaigns for casino legalization, raising the minimum wage and stricter term limits approach the deadline to submit petitions and quality for the November ballot.
Three campaigns have combined reported using more than 500 paid workers for their petition drives under an Arkansas law requiring them to file lists of paid canvassers. One of the campaigns, an effort to legalize casinos in four Arkansas counties, has also spent six figures on a statewide television ad urging voters to sign their petitions.
Friday is the deadline to file signatures for proposed ballot measures. Constitutional amendments need at least 84,859 signatures from registered voters to qualify. Canvassers have been hitting festivals, public libraries, gun shows and even going door to door.
The minimum wage proposal and the casino legalization measure both faced a tight window to gather signatures. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge approved the wording for both measures and a proposal to overhaul the redistricting process in May after the state Supreme Court ordered her to certify the wage-hike measure. David Couch, who authored the proposed constitutional amendment to raise Arkansas' minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2021, said the paid canvassers are needed, given the abbreviated timeframe.
"When you start as late as we do, it's just very difficult or impossible to collect signatures without existing infrastructure," Couch said. The group behind the minimum wage amendment reported using more than 160 paid workers to gather signatures.
Couch, who also authored the redistricting measure, said there wasn't enough time to circulate petitions for that measure and that he hoped to try again in 2020.
The most paid canvassers were reported by the group behind a proposal to impose stricter term limits for state legislators. Supporters of that measure have registered more than 200 workers to circulate petitions for the proposal, which would limit Arkansas lawmakers to two four-year terms in the Senate and three two-year terms in the House with a total cap of 10 years in office.
A 2014 measure loosened Arkansas' term limits and allowed lawmakers to serve a total of 16 years in the House, Senate or a combination of both. Partial legislative terms due to a special election or two-year Senate terms as a result of reapportionment don't count toward that 16 year limit under the current amendment.
Tom Steele, chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, said that despite the registry the group doesn't have that many active canvassers in the field. The group, which had been unsuccessful in gathering enough signatures for its proposal two years ago, has been collecting signatures for more than 18 months, Steele said.
"This year we're going to be turning in signatures," Steele said. "The problem is we've got signatures coming in from so many places, we don't have an accurate count of exactly where we are."
Driving Arkansas Forward, the group behind the casino legalization measure, reported having 180 paid signature gatherers for its proposal. The group's measure would expand casinos at a Hot Springs horse track and West Memphis greyhound track that already offer video poker and other electronic games. The proposal would also legalize casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties.
Nate Steel, the group's counsel, said the ads have helped spread awareness about the proposal and eased the signature gathering process.
"The canvassers are able to spend less time explaining A to Z," Steel said. "People are aware of this petition."