Every year, Arkansas cities and counties refer ballot questions to the voters. These elections are a very important check-and-balance on local governments and a way for Arkansans to have a say in key issues, like bond issues and tax increases.
But far too often, local governments schedule special local elections throughout the year at…inconvenient times. Like during Spring Break, the height of summer while many families are traveling, or the week of local county fairs. This raises a number of issues.
Special elections that are scheduled at obscure times of the year when voters are not paying attention or are entirely unaware that a special election may be going on diminish the voices of voters. As a result, voter turnout is lower than it otherwise would have been had the local election been aligned with a general or primary election. And, consequently, Arkansans’ voices are drowned out.
It’s already difficult enough to get Arkansans to show up at regularly scheduled elections: For example, last November, just half of registered voters showed up in an election with numerous statewide candidates on the ballot.
Arkansas policymakers should be focused on increasing voter turnout, not diminishing it, and that’s unfortunately what special elections do.
Additionally, by holding these local elections at times that are not aligned with regularly-scheduled elections, it raises the taxpayers’ cost of conducting elections. Taxpayers must foot the bill to print ballots, pay poll workers, and more.
Sometimes this is perhaps necessary, but when a regularly-scheduled election is right around the corner, these extra costs are simply wasteful.
So, can anything be done to right the ship? Why yes, in fact, and it appears two state policymakers have just the fix.
According to a report provided by the Arkansas Secretary of State's office, there were 24 local special elections in 2022:
Consider the city of North Little Rock: their city council voted during the May 2022 election season to hold a special tax election August 9th, just weeks before the November election.
A pitifully small number of voters voted (2,200 voters out of a city of nearly 65,000 residents) in the contest, approving a five-year extension of a local tax that’s projected to suck nearly $50 million out of the local economy.
Perhaps we can disagree on the merits of the tax; but hopefully we can all agree that more than 2,200 people should have had a say in it.
And unfortunately, this is just one of dozens of examples from the last decade in Arkansas.
HB1510, sponsored by Rep. David Ray and Sen. John Payton, would require these local ballot questions to be put before voters at regularly-scheduled elections. (We rated it as an "A" on our bill tracker.)
This could include general elections or primary elections. In either case, voters’ voices would be more well heard and no extra costs would be thrust on the backs of taxpayers.
The bill contains exceptions for emergency special elections—such as on issues related to natural disasters or immediate threats to the public welfare—so localities need not wait on these time-sensitive items. But in general, the bill would require local questions to be put forth at more commonsense times.
And, considering so many of these special elections are already happening within close proximity of regularly-scheduled elections, HB1510 seems to make perfectly good sense.