Petition canvassing halted amid coronavirus concerns

March 21, 2020 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas groups trying to gather signatures for various petitions required to qualify for the November ballot have suspended their efforts amid public health concerns spurred by the new coronavirus.

The group Arkansas Voters First has been trying to collect signatures for a petition proposing a constitutional amendment to create a new commission that would be responsible for legislative and congressional redistricting every 10 years.

But as of Thursday, the group stopped gathering signatures until “the world returns to normal,” spokesman George Shelton said.

“Obviously, this is a completely unheard of circumstance, so we’re working to adjust our strategy,” Shelton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “We’ll use the next few weeks to make sure our signature gathering operation is completely fine-tuned. Once everything is lifted, we want to hit the ground running.”

The new coronavirus, which can cause the COVID-19 disease, has infected 96 people in Arkansas as of Friday, according to state health officials.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with preexisting health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while others could take three to six weeks to get well.

U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Whitfield, an Independent from Bella Vista, is seeking to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. He has until May 1 to submit signatures to the secretary of state’s office. Number of signatures must be least 3% of the number of voters who participated in the 2018 gubernatorial election in the district for which they are running but not exceed 10,000 signatures.

Whitfield said he canceled all of his upcoming campaign events and will focus on gathering signatures by mail. He said he collected 3,500 signatures so far.

“It’s going to make it a lot harder,” Whitfield said. “But we have the support we need. We’ll just have to double down our efforts to get people to mail in.”

Petitioners requested that the secretary of state’s office extend submission deadlines. But agency spokesman Kevin Niehaus said the office cannot offer extensions because several statutory deadlines must be met.

“This is not something that the secretary of state’s office is exploring because we don’t have the authority to push back the signature submission date,” Niehaus wrote in an email.

Petition signatures for state constitution amendment proposals must be submitted to the secretary of state’s office by July 3. At least 89,151 signatures of registered voters are needed to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office.