Missouri lawmakers won’t listen to voters. Can electronic petitions change that?

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Should Missourians be allowed to sign law-changing petitions electronically?

In mid-November, the secretary of state received petition initiatives proposing just such a constitutional change. If passed, the state would be required to set up a “web-based system” for accepting electronic petition signatures. Every voters would be given a unique identification number to verify his or her participation.

As it turns out, the petitions had technical flaws and were rejected by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. But the idea of allowing electronic petition signatures in Missouri, which has come up before, is intriguing.

It would certainly open up lawmaking in the state. Petitioners would no longer need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect signatures on street corners and in parking lots (although paper signatures would still be accepted). This would allow voters to study proposals more closely before signing a petition in haste.

It would also dramatically change the relationship between the people and members of the state legislature.

Missouri enacted the initiative process in 1908. Like voters in many other states, Missourians were angry that popular bills were often bottled up in the state capital. They voted to give themselves the power to enact laws they wanted.

Voters have used the power dozens of times since. Some of the state’s most important decisions have been made at the polls, not in the hallways of the Capitol in Jefferson City. Allowing the collection of electronic petition signatures would undoubtedly increase the number of petitions, and the issues they cover, giving even more power to the people.

We’re not yet prepared to endorse that idea. But just as in the early 1900s, Missourians are showing unmistakable signs of frustration with their elected leaders. Voters are literally taking the law into their own hands.

The Clean Missouri initiative is a good example. Republicans, and some Democrats, are angry that voters embedded ethics reform in the state’s constitution, using the petition process to put the matter before voters.

But disgruntled lawmakers have no one to blame but themselves. Time and again the General Assembly debated important ethics reforms, only to reject them. It can’t be any surprise that voters, tired of the delays, used the tools they have to force ethics changes into the law.

That’s precisely why the state has a petition process.

This year voters enacted a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana. They raised the minimum wage. Both issues were put on the ballot by citizens through the petitions process In August, a petition-led referendum embraced protections for unions in Missouri.

The message from voters to lawmakers is crystal clear: We will do what you will not. We may also undo what you have done.

Those messages should ring in the ears of every legislator in the state next year.

Allowing voters to sign petitions electronically would make the process easier and potentially render the legislature more irrelevant. If elected officials want to forestall that possibility, they must listen to voters more closely.