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Arkansas Votes to Keep Prohibition

After a fight led by liquor stores, the state will keep decisions about whether or not to sell alcohol at the county level.

Arkansas, a state where the sale of liquor remains illegal in 37 of 75 counties, voted to stick with its current system Nov. 4, voting by a margin of 57-43 against a constitutional amendment that would have brought an end to Prohibition everywhere in the state.

The big winners in the decisive vote, perhaps ironically, were liquor dealers, especially those located just inside the borders of “wet” counties, who make regular sales to dry-county residents unable to purchase beer, wine or spirits in their home communities. If every county in the state had gone wet, these wet-county liquor dealers would have faced a substantial drop in income. They fought the amendment with generous financing and an effective advertising campaign targeted to key regions around the state. The Conway County liquor association, representing liquor dealers in several wet counties in the middle of the state, alone contributed more than half a million dollars to the campaign to leave the law as it currently stands. Several conservative church groups also took a stand against the amendment, as they have done on prohibition battles in earlier years, but those efforts were dwarfed by the scale of liquor industry involvement.

Pro-wet forces, by contrast, raised a far smaller amount, much of it from grocery and convenience store owners who would have been able to sell alcohol had the amendment passed. Walmart, which has been active in several county-level liquor referendums in various parts of the state in recent years, did not play a visible role in supporting the amendment.

Because more than 60 percent of Arkansas residents live in counties where liquor sales are permitted, it was initially thought that the amendment had an excellent chance of passage. But anti-amendment forces seized the initiative with their argument that counties were entitled to make wet-dry decisions for themselves, rather than having them made at the state level on a no-exceptions basis. The anti-amendment campaign played to local sentiment by naming their main advocacy group Citizens for Local Rights.

Individual counties in Arkansas can still vote themselves wet on the basis of petitions calling for a countywide election, and several have done this in recent years, but efforts to turn a county from dry to wet are hampered by a requirement that petitioners obtain the signatures of 38 percent of the county’s registered voters. In much of the state, especially in rural and small-town counties, that petition threshold is extremely difficult to reach.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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