Election Day is when new leaders are chosen and new laws are made by voters. That is why it is imperative that various government entities afford voters an opportunity to be well-informed on the matters and candidates that they are voting on. However, three voters in Arkansas have felt that they were not properly informed when they cast their ballots and filed a lawsuit in response.
When Jim and Cynde Watson Voted in Marion County, they were not informed that a provision that still appeared on the printed ballot was no longer available for people to vote on. That provision was Issue 7, a controversial state law measure better known as the Medical Cannabis Act. The Arkansas Supreme Court barred Issue 7 from being a matter to be voted on when it was determined that over 12,000 signatures were obtained improperly. However, by the time that the Arkansas Supreme Court made the decision, the ballots had already been printed and were available for people to vote. So it was up to the pollworkers to inform voters that they could no longer vote on Issue 7.
Ms. Watson had heard about the lawsuit involving Issue 7. However, when Ms. Watson inquired about whether she and her husband could still vote on Issue 7, the pollworker she asked wrongly informed her that Issue 7 could still be voted on. A small sign notifying voters that Issue 7 could not be voted on was present in the polling place, but Mr. and Ms. Watson are arguing that the sign was placed in a location where it did not grab their attention. The Watsons and their fellow voter who joined them in the lawsuit over the lack of information regarding Issue 7 state that their misunderstanding over whether they could vote for Issue 7 impacted how they voted on another issue on the ballot.
What Are the States Required to Tell Voters?
States are required by federal law to inform local voters about everything that they are voting on. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires states to have a formal plan for voter education to ensure that all voters have access to all of the information that they need to vote, especially with regard to measures that could become laws. As a basic part of providing voter education, states need to ensure that voters know what measures they can vote on and what measures they cannot vote on, even though the measures are still on the ballot. Informing voters about what cannot be considered on the ballot is especially important as this information can influence how a voter chooses to vote, which is what allegedly happened in Arkansas.
When the Watsons were misinformed by the pollworker as to whether Issue 7 could still be voted on, they voted in a manner that was different than if they had known for sure that their vote for Issue 7 would not count. On the original ballots for the 2016 Arkansas state and national elections, there were two measures that would lead to the legalization of medical marijuana. In addition to Issue 7, Arkansas voters were also able to legalize medical marijuana through Issue 6. However, Issue 6 did not contain a provision that would permit certain patients to grow marijuana on their own, making Issue 7 the more popular choice between the two measures. The Watsons chose to vote for Issue 7 because they preferred Issue 7 to Issue 6, and they were under the impression that they could still vote for Issue 7. If the Watsons knew that they could not vote for Issue 7, and that their only choice for legalizing medical marijuana was Issue 6, then they would have voted for Issue 6.
After the Watsons had voted, choosing to vote for Issue 7 and vote against Issue 6, they realized that the pollworker was wrong about the validity of their vote for Issue 7. However, it was too late for the Watsons to change their votes and vote for Issue 6 instead. Out of concern that there were other voters like them who thought that their vote for Issue 7 would count when that vote was cast, the Watsons decided to file a lawsuit asking that everyone who voted for Issue 7 to be able to recast their vote with regard to Issue 6. The lawsuit also sought to change the manner in which pollworkers inform voters about the change in the ballot. Instead of merely having a small sign tucked away in amongst several other signs where it may not be seen, the plaintiffs wanted three signs clearly notifying voters that Issue 7 could no longer be voted on placed in prominent locations in each polling place. This would likely be sufficient to inform voters that, despite Issue 7’s appearance on the ballot, they could not vote on the matter.
Why This Matters, Now and In the Long Run.
Issue 6 did pass in Arkansas, thereby negating the need for anyone who voted for Issue 7 and against Issue 6 to change their vote. However, the larger issue of the misinformation shared by the pollworker and the need to improve voter education remains. By filing the lawsuit, the voters highlighted the blatant inadequacies of the current voter education system in Arkansas. Lawsuits such as this are important, as they can be the only way that impactful change is made. Regardless of the official outcome of the lawsuit, Arkansas will likely change how it informs voters about any changes made to the ballot and about any issues that can no longer be voted on.
Providing access to voter education materials and ensuring that registered voters know about what they are voting on are important duties of every state government. If you feel that you are being denied access to voter education or that your right to vote is otherwise being impeded by your state’s government, contact a government lawyer.