Government & Politics

On the GOP’s agenda: making it harder for Missouri voters to put issues on the ballot

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testifies in favor of changes to the initiative petition process before the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, March 27. (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testifies in favor of changes to the initiative petition process before the House Elections Committee on Wednesday, March 27. (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Last year Missourians voted overwhelmingly for ballot measures legalizing medical marijuana, hiking the minimum wage, limiting lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, revamping how legislative districts are drawn and repealing a right-to-work law.

Each was enacted over the objection of the Republican-dominated state legislature through the initiative petition provision of the Missouri constitution.

In 2020, Democrats and their allies are looking to use the same vehicle to expand eligibility for Medicaid, outlaw right-to-work completely and establish early voting.

Republicans aren’t sitting out the initiative petition scrum. They are considering measures of their own that would ban sanctuary cities, protect Confederate memorials and establish partisan elections for state Supreme Court judges.

The state’s chief elections officer, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, believes the entire process has gotten out of hand.

He insists he doesn’t want to deter Missourians from taking issues directly to the ballot. But he contends that it is too easy to amend the state’s constitution, and the number of initiative petitions submitted to his office has skyrocketed from 55 in 2008 to 371 last year.

“We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic,” Ashcroft said. “It’s not an attack on our way of life or our government. We are a republic, and I do think that the normal process should be to go through our Legislature.”

He’s gotten behind a spate of Republican-backed bills in the Missouri House intended to cut down on initiative petitions and make it harder for them to win approval at the ballot box.

Among the proposals is a refundable fee for filing referendums and initiative petitions, a per-signature fee to get a petition on the ballot and a higher threshold for proposed constitutional amendments.

“We are witnessing special interest groups on both sides of the political divide use the rather weak initiative petition process to circumvent the legislature,” said Rep. John Simmons, R-Franklin County, who is sponsoring two of 10 bills debated this week by the House Elections Committee.

According to a legislative analysis, the Secretary of State’s Office estimated requiring a $500 refundable fee could lead to a 75 percent reduction in initiative petitions.

Democrats denounced each of the GOP proposals as an attack on Missourians’ constitutional rights.

“Sometimes direct democracy is the only way to achieve progress when an unresponsive legislature refuses to act on important issues,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “An attack on the initiative process is an attack on democracy itself, and House Democrats will not allow the voices of Missouri voters to be silenced.”

Joining Democrats in opposing changes to the initiative petition process is an unusual coalition made up of labor unions and groups with ties to GOP mega donor Rex Sinquefield.

Sinquefield has spent millions over the years in support of ballot measures seeking to make drastic changes to public education and eliminate the income tax. Labor unions successfully used the referendum process last year to repeal a GOP-backed law forbidding contracts requiring workers to pay union dues.

“If the goal is to discourage moneyed interests from using the initiative petition process, this won’t do it,” said Carl Bearden, CEO of the conservative nonprofit United for Missouri. “They’ll just spend more money.”

Woody Cozad, a lobbyist for the media-arm of Sinquefield’s lobbying company, First Rule, argued against establishing fees to participate in the initiative petition process because it is a right that is enshrined in the Missouri constitution.

“When you grant a citizen rights in the constitution,” Cozad said, “you can’t tax their ability to exercise those rights.”

Besides, Cozad said, getting an inititive petition on the ballot and convincing voters to support it are already daunting and expensive tasks.

“The system requires either millions of dollars or a massive standing organization, like the unions, to use it. You need either Rex Sinquefield or the SEIU to take advantage of this process,” he said. “We’re in no danger of having direct democracy in Missouri. But we do have a populist release valve.”

Of the 371 petitions submitted to the secretary of state’s office for the 2018 ballot, only five made it to the ballot.

Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the teacher’s union Missouri NEA, said the state has approved and operated under four different constitutions since its founding.

“Each was approved by the people,” he said. “Our constitution has always been the product of direct democracy.”

Ashcroft said he’s ready to sit down and work with critics of the proposed changes to see if common ground can be reached.

The question is how legislators protect the right of people to be involved, Ashcroft said, while also protecting the sanctity of the state’s constitution.

“How do we make sure that avenue is there,” he said, “but we also don’t just put things willy-nilly into our constitution?”