Government & Politics

As petitions to change Missouri laws soar, some want to charge fees to get on ballot

A bill in Missouri supported by the state’s top election official would charge fees for filing initiative petitions and verifying signatures once they are collected.
A bill in Missouri supported by the state’s top election official would charge fees for filing initiative petitions and verifying signatures once they are collected.

Ten years ago, 15 initiative petitions were filed with the secretary of state’s office in the hopes of making it on the statewide ballot.

This year, that number has skyrocketed to 330 and counting.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a first-term Republican and the state’s top election official, says the initiative petition process is getting out of hand. The time and resources spent on ballot summaries, signature verification, fiscal analysis and publication in the media go up every year along with the number of petitions.

So he’s asking lawmakers to overhaul a process he says is being dominated by special interests, most notably by charging fees for filing initiative petitions and verifying signatures once they are collected.

“Right now, we have individuals who are spending millions of dollars because they can’t get the laws that they want and they want to bypass the legislature,” Ashcroft said. “I think that’s inappropriate. We shouldn’t be subsidizing that with taxpayer dollars.”

But Ashcroft is running into an unusual coalition of opponents to his proposal — labor unions and their longtime nemesis, GOP mega donor Rex Sinquefield.

Both have turned to the ballot in recent years to enact or repeal legislation. And both see the proposed changes as an unconstitutional attempt to limit the ability of citizens to enact change in state government.

“When you go in to vote, we don’t charge a user fee, even though it costs so much to get the ballot ready and get the voting machine ready and find a place to have you go vote,” said Woody Cozad, a lobbyist who represents a number of groups financed by Sinquefield. “You don’t get a user fee. That’s a poll tax, and it’s unconstitutional. You cannot place a fee on a constitutionally guaranteed right.”

Among the changes to the process Ashcroft is proposing is a $500 fee to file an initiative petition. The fee would be refunded if enough signatures are gathered to place the question on the ballot.

He also wants to be able to collect a 40-cents-per-signature fee to help county clerks defray administrative costs of verifying signatures. That fee would apply only if the people who collected the signatures were being paid.

“I believe strongly there should be an initiative petition process in Missouri,” said Sen. David Sater, a Cassville Republican sponsoring legislation that would enact Ashcroft’s suggestions. “Over time, though, the process has been distorted to the point where it no longer works for the people, and works sometimes against the people.”

Ron Berry, who previously worked in the secretary of state’s office under Democrat Robin Carnahan and now lobbies on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers, said the idea of a filing fee was discussed when he worked for the state but dismissed out of concerns it could be considered an unreasonable burden on the exercise of a constitutional right.

He also noted that while the number of initiative petitions filed has gone up, the number that have made their way through the arduous process and ended up on the ballot hasn’t.

Opponents of right to work dropped off 310,000 petitions seeking a vote to repeal the law in 2018.

In 2008, three of the 15 petitions filed made it on the ballot.

In 2016, 223 petitions were filed and four made it on the ballot.

Cozad said the process of placing a question on the statewide ballot is difficult and expensive, and can no longer be done by volunteers alone.

“You can only do it by raising enough money to pay folks to go out and collect signatures,” he said.

Those wishing to get a question on the statewide ballot must first submit petitions to the secretary of state’s office. The office approves the proposed petition’s form and prepares ballot summary language. The state auditor approves a summary of the proposal’s impact on the state’s budget.

The secretary of state’s office then certifies the official ballot title for the petition, which consists of the ballot summary language and the auditor’s summary of its fiscal impact.

At that point, organizers can begin collecting signatures. To change a state law, at least 100,000 signatures are required, and they must come from six of the state’s eight congressional districts. To change the state constitution, nearly 160,000 signatures are required.

At 40 cents per signature, a constitutional amendment under Ashcroft’s proposal would cost about $65,000.

Ashcroft noted that the number of individuals who are submitting petitions has also remained stable even as the number of petitions goes up. For the upcoming election, 28 people submitted the 330 proposed initiative petitions.

One individual, he said, submitted 70 petitions.

“It’s not uncommon for individuals to file 10 or more versions of the same initiative petition with only small changes,” Sater said.

Ashcroft hopes the $500 filing fee will curtail that practice.

“This is a common sense way,” he said of Sater’s legislation, “to make sure the people of the state decide the laws and constitution that they live under, and that they have the ability to make changes if need be through the initiative petition process.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock