Last week, we discussed the history of dry counties and blue laws in Arkansas, dating all the way back to its earliest days as a state.
Though Prohibition ended nearly a century ago, Arkansas remains the driest state in the Union, and the battle of wet vs. dry that has gone on for decades shows no signs of ending soon. Attempts to make dry counties wet are far from uncommon, but are frequently unsuccessful. Attempts to turn a wet county dry are practically unheard of in recent years, though such an effort would run into many of the same roadblocks. Campaigns on the alcohol question have been supported by some organizations and opposed by others, been stalled and challenged, leaving the whole issue a long, messy slog. Despite such difficulties, there are many who are still trying to make the changes they want to see in their communities. Chairmen Paul Helberg of Vote Hot Spring County Wet, a ballot question committee to do just what the name says, explained his organization and some of the many difficulties that come with making a dry county wet.
Helberg explained a variety of reasons that he and the rest of his organization want to make Hot Spring County wet, and none are related to personal financial gain.
“We look at the benefits and what’s taken place in Bryant and Clark County, and we see how much safer the roads are,” he said. It may seem unintuitive, but a study done for Hot Spring County showed that allowing sales of alcohol within the county would result in a 23% decrease in DUIs, as well as an 8% reduction in traffic accidents. Some of this may simply be due to a lower level of traffic out of the county, while some might be from those who go to buy alcohol and don’t want to wait until they get home to start drinking. Becoming wet might even bring a reduction in drug arrests: a study done in Kentucky showed that dry counties had significantly higher rates of meth lab busts, and concluded that making the whole state wet would decrease meth lab busts by as much as 25%.
Being wet can also make a country more appealing, as industries and restaurants tend to prefer wet counties. Many restaurants make a serious profit margin on alcoholic beverages, so going without that income can limit the number and quality of a county’s restaurants. Conway is a dry county, but they’ve seen significant benefits from having a large number of establishments with private club licenses that allow them to serve alcoholic beverages.
“The Chamber of Commerce Director in Conway [said] it makes a lot of difference to their community,” Helberg said. “He said he can’t remember the last time someone decided they needed to go to Little Rock because they wanted a glass of wine with their Italian dinner.”
There’s also tax revenue to consider. “Clark county, for example, in the ten years since they voted wet, the county’s sales tax revenue has increased over 700,000 dollars.” Not all of that is directly from alcohol, but along with the other aforementioned benefits, it can have a knock-on effect. The liquor stores that would inevitably appear after a county becomes wet would also provide jobs and further tax revenue, all of which can be used to improve roads, schools, and hospitals, which bring still more benefits.
Hot Spring County voted to become dry in 1943, but at that time it was much easier to get the issue of alcohol on the ballot. Under a 1935 act, a petition signed by 15% of a county’s registered voters was necessary to put it to a vote. Even then, enough of the signatures gained were declared unacceptable, so the petition was thrown out by the county judge and had to be appealed. It’s become even more difficult, as Act 243 of 1993 more than doubled the number of required signatures from 15% to 38%. It also limits how often such petitions can even make it to the ballot to once every four years.
“The alcohol question is the only ballot question initiative that the state requires 38% percent of the registered voters to sign a petition to get it on the ballot,” Helberg explained. “Every other ballot question initiative requires 15% of the number of registered voters who voted in the last general election.” That last aspect is just as crucial as the more obvious higher percentage needed because no county will have 100% voter turnout for an election. If a hypothetical county had 100,000 registered voters but a 40% voter turnout, they would need 38,000 signatures to get alcohol sales on the ballot, but only 6,000 to get anything else on the ballot. They would have a smaller pool of possible signers to draw from, but getting them would require far, far less time and resources. It would also mean that they would know from the day they started how many signatures they needed.
“In the case of alcohol, the number doesn’t get fixed until the report to the Secretary of State for the number of registered voters.” Essentially, Helberg and his organization are taking a shot in the dark at how many signatures they actually need because the number of registered voters can change, especially due to registration drives before an election.
But wait, it gets worse.
Vote Hot Spring County Wet has done mail campaigns to registered voters who could sign the petition, and in doing so have discovered yet another significant issue. “In my hand as we speak,” said Helberg, “I have a list from the US Postal Service. In that list I have 765 names with addresses that are outside of Hot Spring county, and yet they are registered in Hot Spring County. We have 790 names that have a new address according to the USPS that are probably in Hot Spring County. So the people we’re trying to get signatures from don’t live where the county says they are.” They also know of at least 230 people who have died but are still on the rolls of registered voters. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, Helberg said that they were currently about 200 signatures short of what they thought they would need.
All of this, combined with 38% requirement, mean that they not only aren’t sure how many signatures they need, they can’t be sure where the people who could sign might live and there might even be fewer than the county government thinks there are. All told, Helberg estimates that there may be as many as 2,000 fewer registered voters than the county government thinks there are, out of a number that is already less than 18,000. Then, of course, there is always the danger that signatures will be declared invalid, just as occurred when the county was voted dry in 1943. Helberg summed it up as “the most unfair thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”
The law itself is not the only obstacle, because some people are adamantly opposed to dry counties turning wet. As with the old temperance movement, political lines grow blurry here. Many conservative churches within dry counties still oppose the consumption of alcohol, and they find an unlikely ally in liquor stores themselves, which can make a killing simply by being located on the border of a dry county, and therefore having little to no competition. Lobbying to keep a county dry easily pays for itself in the long run.
On the flipside, there have been groups that have supported efforts to expand the list of wet counties. Walmart has been the most prominent of these, as it poured millions of dollars into petition drives across the state to allow alcohol sales, succeeding in their home county of Benton as well as several others across the state. That funding suddenly stopped in 2018, however, when Walmart struck a deal with county-line liquor stores in which they would stop supporting movements to make dry counties wet for eight years in exchange for being allowed to sell a wider variety of wines.
Helberg did not mention any direct opposition from any organizations, but he did note the distinct lack of any support from almost any group whatsoever. Walmart has not given Vote Hot Spring County Wet any funding under their 2018 agreement, and has even banned them from petitioning in Walmart’s parking lots. They are careful, Helberg explained, to ask for permission wherever they want to petition. A number of other stores have refused to allow it or simply not responded. “This petition drive is being done in spite of everyone who is going to benefit financially from it,” Helberg commented.
All the support it does have is from individuals and volunteers, and as far as Helberg was aware, none of them stand to financially benefit from it themselves. It is simply something that they think would be for the betterment of their community. They did receive resolutions of support from the quorum court of Hot Spring County, the Malvern city council, and a number of other government bodies. None of these resolutions, however, have resulted in any actual support, material or otherwise. Simply put, they’re on their own.
Despite these many obstacles, Helberg is very confident that if they can get enough signatures, which they may be close to doing, then they can win at the ballot box. It’s pretty simple math, he explained: “In the last general election, we had roughly 50% [voter turnout]. If we only get 50% of voters to start with, and most of our people who have signed the petition turn out, it could easily be a 60-70% landslide.”
Of course, it’s still uncertain whether they’ll get to that point. Whether a county is dry or wet, perhaps what is most important is that the voice of its people be heard. That, after all, is why it is left up to counties in the first place. Unfortunately, Act 243 of 1993 does a great deal to muffle those voices on either side, and only a major shift in the General Assembly could change that.
Until that happens, it will be a long, slow battle, but one that is fought by those who are doing what they believe is right for their communities.