This is a hectic political season in Arkansas. There are close, hotly contested elections for governor and U.S. senator. All of the most sensitive questions facing the country are playing out in TV commercials hitting every corner of the state. But the most intriguing issue in Arkansas this year hasn’t been immigration, or schools, or the use of military force in the Middle East. The most intriguing issue has been Prohibition.
More than 80 years after Prohibition formally ended at the national level, it is alive and well in 37 of 75 Arkansas counties, perhaps the most extreme example of dry power left in the United States. A number of these counties have loopholes under which a few restaurants serve mixed drinks, and some have granted wet status to individual municipalities, but the fact remains that in nearly half the counties in Arkansas, it is illegal for merchants to sell beer or wine over the counter.
Dry forces managed to keep referendums to change the system off the ballot in several highly publicized county campaigns earlier this year. Now, however, they face the prospect of an even more threatening challenge: a ballot measure that would turn the entire state wet in one dramatic move.
Many of the state’s liquor laws date back to the 1940s, when tens of thousands of male citizens were away at war and a disproportionately female electorate took advantage of the opportunity to cast an anti-alcohol vote. Most of the laws enacted in those years remain on the books, not because they command widespread public support, but because the state legislature has made them extremely difficult to repeal. Any proposal seeking to overturn a Prohibition law needs signatures of 38 percent of a county’s registered voters in order to qualify for a place on the ballot.
In the past few years, despite this obstacle, several counties around the state have succeeded in obtaining the requisite number of signatures and bringing Prohibition to a public vote. Clark County, in the southern part of the state, voted itself wet in 2010. Two years later, and rather more conspicuously, Benton County, home to the global headquarters of Walmart, made a statement to both wet and dry forces by casting a decisive vote in favor of abolishing the county’s Prohibition law.
That vote was no coincidence. Walmart, which has made clear its desire to add to its profits with expanded alcohol sales, badly wanted to make some of those sales in its home county. Wet forces spent $660,657 obtaining petition signatures and canvassing for votes. Roughly half a million dollars in donations for this effort came from Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of the company’s founder, Sam Walton. The votes in Clark and Benton counties seemed to make one thing very apparent. For those seeking to turn a county wet, the petition signatures were the major hurdle. Once qualified for the ballot, pro-wet referendums would be difficult to stop.
Those events set the stage for a 2014 campaign year in which pro-wet forces have been emboldened to mount the same kind of effort in several other parts of the state. And they wasted little time in doing so. By spring, a coalition of wet forces had announced plans to seek an anti-Prohibition vote in three more counties -- Craighead, Faulkner and Saline.
All of those made sense. Craighead, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, is the home of Arkansas State University and a likely source of wet votes. Saline and Faulkner are rapidly growing and suburbanizing counties on the edge of Pulaski County (Little Rock), the largest and most urbanized jurisdiction in the state. The wet coalition invested about $1 million in the drive for signatures alone.
In July, however, the wet forces conceded that they simply couldn’t obtain enough signatures in Craighead and Faulkner counties. They appeared to make it over the threshold in Saline, and prepared for a vote there, but in early September a local judge invalidated 159 of the petitions, temporarily removing the issue from the ballot pending a resolution by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
All in all, it was a disappointing summer for wet activists, who may have judged overall public sentiment correctly, but underestimated the difficulty of moving into new counties and persuading 38 percent of the voters to sign up with them.
It’s clear who the major players are in this contest. Lined up in favor of a wet vote are Walmart and the state’s major grocery retailers, led by the Kum & Go convenience stores. Arrayed against them on the dry side are the state’s licensed liquor dealers, especially those who operate just outside the borders of dry counties. Residents of dry counties like Saline and Faulkner who want a six-pack of beer have to purchase it from a wet county liquor store just across the county line. It was these county line liquor dealers who provided most of the organized opposition to the three-county petition drive this spring.
It’s often assumed that the remnants of Prohibition in Arkansas and nearby Southern states are supported by a network of Baptist preachers and other religious fundamentalists who want to keep alcohol out of their counties strictly on moral grounds. But the names on the rosters of the dry pressure groups aren’t primarily those of clergymen. They belong to the ranks of wet county liquor dealers who would stand to lose the most if they are stripped of their monopoly over dry county customers.
Does it sound odd to you that the key backers of Prohibition in Arkansas are liquor sellers? It does to me too. But in Arkansas, it’s pretty much taken for granted. If Walmart loses this fight, it loses a tiny piece of its potential business. But if Saline County goes wet, a liquor store located just outside the county gives up a substantial share of its livelihood. And it can be counted on to spend a substantial amount of money to prevent that from happening.
The disappointing result for the wet side in the early skirmishes might have put the issue to rest for the balance of the year. But it didn’t, almost entirely because of the cleverness of David Couch, a maverick Little Rock lawyer who led a campaign to legalize medical marijuana in 2012. Couch noticed that an anti-Prohibition ballot drive in a single medium-sized Arkansas county might require 25,000-30,000 signatures. That’s why many of them fail. But a ballot measure to amend the state constitution requires only about 78,000 signatures. The whole state is easier to organize than a single county.
So Couch generated a statewide petition drive for what he calls the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Amendment, which provides that counties may regulate the sale of liquor, but not prevent it from being sold. Backed by the grocery and convenience store lobby, he raised $200,000 and crossed the signature threshold with plenty to spare. That put the issue of statewide Prohibition on the November ballot for a single up-or-down vote.
Couch argues that wet counties are actually safer places than dry ones, because their residents don’t drive for miles outside the county, buy alcohol and then consume it on the way back home. He cites a Syracuse University study, conducted in 2001, that found a decline in traffic accidents of 4 to 5 percent a year in counties that switch from dry to wet. He also mentions research conducted at the University of Arkansas claiming that beer sales alone in 33 newly wet counties could create more than 8,000 jobs.
And like previous wet activists, Couch tells residents of dry counties that they should be collecting sales tax on liquor purchases for their own use -- not sending the money across county lines for deposit in wet county coffers.
The dry side makes a simpler argument that it has been using in the liquor debate for decades. It insists that legal alcohol chills the moral climate of any jurisdiction that sells it, and that counties turning wet acquire a general sleaziness that is difficult to overcome. “Robberies, assaults and rapes have all increased in wet counties,” an eastern Arkansas preacher told a reporter earlier this year. “Batesville is a nice, clean place. I’ve seen the other counties that are wet and what they turn into.”
Other dry side proponents argue against the amendment based on a principle of devolution: The state shouldn’t force its will on the counties that prefer the status quo. “I think we should respect the rights of people in these counties to decide for themselves,” says Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, who opposes the amendment.
Given the fact that more than 60 percent of Arkansans reside in counties that are currently wet, it seems a reasonable bet that Couch, Walmart and the grocers will prevail in a straight-line vote.
A survey conducted this summer by the nonpartisan group Public Policy Polling reported a statewide result of 52 percent for the wet side and 40 percent for the dry side. But Couch remains wary. “Arkansas is a small state,” he says. “The liquor lobby is very powerful. They have prepared for this battle for a long time.”
*This story has been updated.