- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Backers of a measure to raise Arkansas’ minimum wage gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot, a special judge said Friday, dealing a blow to opponents who hope to block the proposal from going before voters next month.

But opponents are hopeful the Arkansas Supreme Court will disagree with the judge’s recommendation and throw out 8,500 names because a notary’s signature had been forged.

The Arkansas Supreme Court had appointed former appeals court judge John B. Robbins to serve as a special master in the case and review the validity of the signatures submitted by the group Give Arkansas a Raise Now. Robbins submitted a report Friday with the state’s highest court.

Businessman Jackson T. Stephens filed suit last month over the ballot proposal, arguing that the Secretary of State’s office improperly gave supporters an extra 30 days to gather signatures for the measure, which would gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 by 2017. Arkansas is one of the few states with a minimum wage below the federal level of $7.25 an hour, with the state wage currently at $6.25.

Arkansas’ constitution lets voters petition to place proposed laws and amendments on the general election ballot, provided they obtain enough signatures. For the minimum wage proposal, the target was 8 percent of the number of votes counted in the 2010 gubernatorial election, or 62,507. When a group of petitioners exceeds the target, it is given 30 days to collect more signatures in case any of the previous set is later ruled invalid.

Give Arkansas a Raise Now initially turned in 64,113 signatures and was granted an extra 30 days to gather more names. Stephens’ lawsuit argues that many of the original signatures should have been thrown out.

In his report, Robbins found that 386 of those signatures should have been thrown out - which left 63,747 valid names remaining, or more than enough to qualify for the extra time. Robbins also noted that 8,501 signatures were invalid because of the forged notary signature, but said those names should have been removed from the final tally, not the original count that determined whether canvassers could have the extra 30-day period.

After the final count in September, 89,790 signatures were verified - or about 27,000 more than what was needed.

Attorney David Sterling, who represents Stephens, said Friday that the measure shouldn’t be on the ballot because the group hadn’t gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for extra time.

“The big finding is that there was rampant fraud throughout the signature collection, the initial phase,” Sterling said. “The big question is whether or not the Supreme Court is going to count those toward the initial count.”

David Couch, who represents Give Arkansas a Raise Now, said he was pleased with Robbins’ report but noted the case remained in the hands of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“If it’s on the ballot, I think it will pass by overwhelming numbers,” Couch said.

The state’s high court is expected to rule on the lawsuit before the Nov. 4 election. Early voting begins Oct. 20.

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Follow Jill Bleed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jzbleed

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