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Spokesmen for the group have refused to respond to calls and questions from the Arkansas Times, though sympathizers have suggested in anonymous blog postings that sufficient signatures were initially submitted but went missing.
That charge, and continued questions from the Times, finally prompted more elaboration on events from the secretary of state's office, which spent $18,700 to pay an accounting firm to count signatures after Secure Arkansas founder Jeannie Burlsworth turned in petitions that she claimed met the legal threshold.
She signed both a "receipt for statewide initiative petition" and a sworn affidavit saying she had turned in petition pages bearing 78,211 signatures.
Since the petitions were found insufficient, Burlsworth has complained about the hiring of the accounting firm JPMS Cox to count signatures because one employee of the firm has been an officer in the nonprofit Just Communities of Arkansas, the successor to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The group's promotion of fellowship among diverse groups is apparently viewed suspiciously by Burlsworth. The firm is frequently used for political and government-related accounting tasks. Its clients have included Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.
A commenter on our Arkansas Blog (whose association with Secure Arkansas we were unable to confirm) has suggested the petitions were mishandled by the secretary of state's office.
"The SoS hired JPMS Cox to do the signature count and turned the petitions over to the audit firm. The Intake Report created by JPMS Cox listed FEWER pages than the SoS had counted. Therefore, pages went missing AFTER Secure Arkansas had relinquished custody of the petitions to the SoS," read the anonymous post.
Sandra McGrew, public affairs coordinator for Charlie Daniels, said the office would not respond to anonymous comments, but provided information that tends to contradict the anonymous complaint. Burlsworth signed a sworn affidavit saying the group had collected 6,533 pages of petitions including 78,211 signatures (or an average of about 12 signatures per petition page). The final count by JPMS Cox said the group had turned in 6,518 pages containing 67,542 signatures.
Even if the Burlsworth page count was correct and 15 pages were lost in transition, they couldn't have possibly accounted for the shortfall in signatures, more than 10,000 fewer than Burlsworth had claimed.
"Upon initial submission, the SOS office does a rough count of the pages of the petition to get an approximation of signatures," McGrew wrote in an email. "We take that rough count along with the affidavit signed by the sponsor and begin the verification process. Though we count pages, that doesn't mean each line of each page has a signature. During the formal intake process, the accounting firm does a thorough and complete count of each page. The final count was 6,518. It's not uncommon for the initial estimate and actual count upon official review to differ slightly."
Burlsworth did not answer our phone calls for comment and we've publicly called for further explanation on our website. McGrew says the sponsors of any measure who are dissatisfied with the review by the secretary of state may petition the Arkansas Supreme Court for review. Secure Arkansas has not done so at this time.
The secretary of state's office had said previously it would make no attempt to recoup the accounting expenditure, which would not have been made had Secure Arkansas accurately represented its signature count in the first place. Had the group fallen short of 77,468 signatures, there would have been no count required.
Had the group submitted 77,468 signatures, each then would have been subject to verification as that of a registered voter. Had enough been disallowed in the verification process to take the number below the minimum, the law provides that Secure Arkansas would have been given 30 days to gather additional signatures. Secure Arkansas was mobilizing for more signature gathering when news came that its initial count was erroneous and not big enough to qualify for consideration.