Upholding the state Constitution means defending the people’s direct democracy access. So why are leaders dismissing these guaranteed rights?
The Constitution serves as the bedrock of American democracy and the ultimate safeguard against government abuse of power. At the state level, the Arkansas Constitution directly empowers the people to provide a check on our executive and legislative branches. When everyday citizens challenge laws with which they disagree to hold government accountable, it’s a big deal.
Arkansas has one of the most citizen-friendly constitutions in the country, giving people the power to direct the course of our state. “Regnat populus,” Latin for “The People Rule,” is more than a motto in Arkansas — it’s a promise enshrined in our state’s Constitution in more ways than one.
Most notably, our state constitution guarantees Arkansans the opportunity to place issues directly on the ballot. Arkansas allows legislatively referred and direct initiative statutes, or legislatively referred and direct initiated constitutional amendments, and referenda. This means that we, the people of Arkansas, can take direct action on issues that matter most to us. It also means we can challenge recently passed laws we do not support.
A check on state power
Additionally, our Constitution’s powerful direct-democracy mechanism allows us to curb problems like corruption, unethical behavior, and opaque government procedure. Other than voting abusive politicians out of office, direct ballot access is the people’s most important check on state power.
The latter is an essential tool during non-election years when politicians are less inclined to do the bidding of constituents. And in a state like Arkansas where one party holds all state power, elections may not be a fruitful accountability lever for voters. This is why a referendum on a law is so powerful — it can be an immediate answer to an unyielding, out-of-touch legislative body.
The Constitution deserves fidelity, not flippancy
Arkansas’s constitutionally guaranteed people power is something to be proud of, so why do so many of our elected officials denigrate citizens who harness this mechanism?
Simple: those in power attack the people’s power because threatens their own.
In 2022 Representative David Ray brought forward a ballot issue, known as Issue 2, that would have changed the percentage needed to amend the Arkansas Constitution. The proposal would have required a 60% passing threshold; right now, amendments only require a 50% + 1 threshold to pass.
This was framed as an attempt to protect Arkansans from out-of-state, big-money attempts to buy constitutional changes. It was an originalist argument; Ray believes in less-frequent Constitutional amendments — or that only special interests he agrees with should be allowed to make changes. Issue 2 failed handily, much to the relief of Arkansas voters.
Right now, one of the governor’s closest allies is also trying to thwart the power of the Arkansas people. The governor’s Legislative Director, Jamie Barker, has repeatedly mocked an attempt to bring the LEARNS Act to the ballot via a constitutional referendum. The governor herself recently called a lawsuit against LEARNS “absurd.” The lawsuit’s claims were based on constitutional requirements that had been overlooked during the bill’s legislative procedure.
It’s unfortunate to see those in top levels of state government mock and degrade a constitutional right of the people. Time and time again, these leaders have failed in their duty to uphold the Arkansas Constitution. Worse still, they paint one of the Constitution’s most notable and precious components — power directly given to the people — as an unimportant, unnecessary hurdle. They see direct democracy as an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of even more power.
What a damn shame.