For decades the Missouri legislature has been at odds with the will of the people on a host of major issues. Legislators are unfazed. In this year’s session in Jefferson City, lawmakers seem determined to codify their disdain for grassroots democracy.
Legislators have introduced a slew of proposals to effectively end state voters’ use of the initiative petition process. They are intent on erecting hurdles that make it virtually impossible for residents to put issues on the statewide ballot.
It’s no surprise that legislators are once again out of sync with the will of the people as they seek to nullify the process that allows for a “will of the people.” It’s the ultimate irony, as Missouri citizens urge them not to do it.
In January, despite overwhelming opposition – 96 percent of committee testimony opposed one such nullification bill – the Missouri House proceeded anyway to rush out approval of a bill to undermine the initiative petition process.
The Missouri House Committee on Elections and Elected Officials heard five bills on Jan. 24, and voted four of the attacks on the petition process out for consideration. The action was taken even as testimony opposing the bills ran five-to-one against the supportive comments.
In February, unhappy constituents similarly lined up, one after another, to describe the initiative petition process as “direct, pure democracy” that should not be thrown in the trash bin of Missouri statehouse history.
Missouri’s media outlets also have come out swinging against the legislature’s insistence on quashing the ballot initiative process. They note that voters have used the initiative process for Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, a minimum wage hike, collective bargaining protections and use of renewable energy.
“The argument for tightening the initiative petition process is based on the mistaken assumption that it is too easy now to get a measure passed. It isn’t,” declared the Joplin Globe on Jan. 22. “Most measures that are attempted don’t succeed.”
“Medicaid expansion is a good example of why we need this,” the Globe continued. “It was evident for a long time that Missourians favored this, yet it got nowhere in Jefferson City, so voters took the matter into their hands, putting the amendment on the ballot, and then approving it 53% to 47%, bypassing lawmakers altogether.”
Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star have published strongly worded opinion pieces against the legislature’s moves to cripple citizen ballot initiatives. Many papers around the state, including the Columbia Missourian and Columbia Tribune, ran op-eds opposing the attacks on the voters’ will.
The on-line Kansas City Beacon stressed how many important issues only saw the light of day precisely because citizens got out and worked to get signed petitions necessary to get measures on the ballot. The Beacon noted that in recent years, lawmakers have altered or jettisoned laws and constitutional changes approved by voters.
In 2010, Missourians approved a ballot measure to enact tighter restrictions on puppy mills. In the spring session following that vote, the animal protections were repealed or watered down by the state legislature.
A similar reversal came in 2020 after Missourians passed Clean Missouri, a far-reaching ethics ballot measure, which was opposed by state politicians. It was later repealed after the legislature took steps to insure a reversal.
The Kansas City Beacon noted that Missouri does not need to make it even harder for the citizens to express their will at the ballot box. Rather, Missouri needs to pass a bill to guard the people’s will after it is articulated and affirmed by state voters. The reversals need to stop.
In its Dec. 13, 2022 piece, the Beacon cited a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Adams of St. Louis to guard against reversal of the people’s will. Under Adams’ bill, no measure approved by voters could be amended, watered down or repealed by state legislators.
Guarding The People’s Will
Among groups opposed to plans to crush the initiative process are Missouri Healthcare for All, Missouri Realtors Association, Missouri Faith Voices, Missouri National Education Association, Metropolitan Congregations United, Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, Paraquad, Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans, Missouri Sierra Club, St. Louis County NAACP and more.
The League of Women Voters (LWV) of Missouri has taken the lead in the fight to protect the will of the people as embodied in the initiative process. Opinion pieces by Marilyn McLeod, president of Missouri LWV, have appeared in publications across the state.
“The Initiative Petition is already a difficult and complicated process. Missourians resort to it only when they feel their voice isn’t being heard at the capitol,” McLeod stated in the Feb. 9 issue of the St. Louis Labor Tribune.
“The League is opposed to any efforts by the General Assembly to make this process even more difficult. Disgruntled politicians are ignoring regular order and the overwhelming opposition to limitations on this constitutional right as the rush to pass HJR 43,” McLeod declared.
At a St. Louis rally to mark the second anniversary of the failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., an LWV speaker noted that some of the same Missouri lawmakers who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election are now trying to dismantle the right of state voters to make decisions.
“Too many Missouri legislators do not trust the voters – and they showed this by not accepting the results of the 2020 election – and now they are making efforts in 2023 to diminish our voice,” said Angie Dunlap president of the LWV of Metro St. Louis. Gutting the initiative petition process squashes the voters’ ability to use direct democracy in our state.”
Dunlap said that when legislators fail time and again to address the problems of citizens, the ballot initiative is the means for restoring democracy When the General Assembly fails to act on issues, the voters feel compelled to act.
“When lawmakers now create more hurdles for initiatives to make the ballot – requiring more petition signatures, more districts, and more money – when they require a higher majority for the initiatives to become law … these efforts are contrary to the idea that voters have the most important role in our democracy,” Dunlap said.
Multiple bills this session are designed to prevent the passage of measures by a simple majority of state voters. Some proposals are as high as 60 percent or a two-thirds majority. The motive is all too apparent with the current furor over curtailment of women’s reproductive rights.
Six other states have considered statewide ballot measures after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022. In each of these states – even heavily conservative Republican states like Kansas, Kentucky and Montana – the voters sided with abortion protections
Right-wing legislators are desperate to keep Missouri voters from making the same kind of decisions to overturn one of the most draconian anti-choice laws in the country in the Show-Me State. These lawmakers have no interest in being shown up at the ballot box by moderate voters on the issue of reproductive rights, according to LWV.
“The November 2022 election confirmed that across the nation most people believe women should have bodily autonomy,” said Dunlap. “Be resolved to let legislators know the injustice when they seek to control a women’s health, and at the same time, they ignore the persistent needs of families.
“Missouri families need accessible health care; healthy food; dependable, living wage jobs; safe, modest housing; clean neighborhoods; equitable resources to enable quality schools and affordable child and senior care,” said Dunlap. “And Missouri citizens may need the initiative petition to bring reproductive justice to our state.”
A Republican Divide?
Current Republican lawmakers are headstrong on the need to deconstruct the petition process as abortion-rights supporters weigh a ballot proposal asking Missouri voters to address the efficacy of the state’s ban on nearly all abortions, as well as the punitive measures against those who defy the ban.
Some GOP lawmakers say the petition process is not needed since voters have installed Republican supermajorities in both chambers. However, this ignores the effects of redistricting and campaign laws designed to effect those supermajorities.
Republicans like Sen. Rick Brattain of Harrisonville want the threshold for passage of ballot measures hiked to a nearly impossible two-thirds of votes cast. He has told the Missouri media that this is necessary because “people do not know what they are voting on.”
A measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, would require public forums to be held in all eight congressional districts in Missouri on any statewide votes proposing state constitution changes. Other measures hike the number of signatures on petitions and they must meet these thresholds in all eight districts.
“The multitude of different proposals to strip voter power is a political game to confuse the opposition; it attempts to fracture a united opposition,” said LWV’s Dunlap. “Those who are restricting the IP will not be successful. There are many organizations and people who are acting together to maintain the strength of our democracy.
“The philosophy of those in power is too often to hold onto power as tightly as they can, even if that power is contrary to democracy,” added Dunlap. “A simple majority of voters is a threat to expose the narrow interests of a loud minority – a minority that encourages legislators to ignore most voters.”
Some old-line Republicans in the state are cautioning the current MAGA Republicans in the state legislature that they may be overreaching in their efforts to disassemble the initiative process. Their rhetoric and bill proposals on IP could backfire.
“Attacks on the ballot initiative petition process in Missouri are not new – and usually arise after an issue passes that the party in power does not like,” said Carl Bearden, CEO of United for Missouri.
“This happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Democratic majorities, and it is happening once again under Republican majorities. Neither party was, or is, correct,” said Bearden, a St. Charles Republican and former speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives.
Tom Coleman, a past GOP member of the Missouri House and former U.S. Representative Congressman joined Russ Carnahan, a past Democratic member of the Missouri House and U.S congressman, in issuing this joint statement:
“This isn’t about reform, or Democrats versus Republicans. Instead, it’s a transparent power grab by special interests and some politicians trying to fundamentally alter the rules — and limit our freedom to vote directly on the issues that impact everyday Missourians.”
Don Corrigan is former editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Times and West End Word newspapers in St. Louis. He is a professor emeritus in the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis.