Missouri Republicans trying to stifle voters’ voices by killing initiative petition process

Campaign to fight expected November vote must start now


We all learn in school that the right to petition our government is fundamental to our democracy. Many have died protecting those rights.

CAMPAIGN WORKERS delivered nearly 350,000 signatures to the Missouri Secretary of State’s office on May 1, 2020 to place a proposed constitutional amendment expanding Medicaid coverage to thousands of low-income adults on the November 2020 ballot after Republicans in the Missouri Legislature stymied the effort for years. – David A. Lieb/AP photo

One of those rights, the initiative petition, allows citizens to gather signatures to place a proposal on the ballot and thus bypass a do-nothing or resistant legislature. Missouri is one of 17 states with a statewide initiative petition process. It has been a part of our state’s constitution since 1907.

But that’s about to change!

Over the years, local citizen organizers have used the initiative as an important strategy for furthering important issues: Campaign finance reform, Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, health care reform, protecting parks, protecting workers rights, ethics reform, challenging utility rates, resisting right to work, to name just a few. The initiative petition is a critical part of the grassroots activist’s toolbox.

Under our state constitution, you can use an initiative petition to propose a law, or you can use it to amend the constitution.

But Jefferson City Republicans are not so happy about citizens taking things into our own hands. They are trying to shut down this long-held right.

They don’t care as much if we propose a law via citizen initiative, because they can always overturn it at the next session if they don’t like it. In fact, they have done that before. Never mind that it passed by a vote of the people.

But a constitutional amendment is different. If citizens put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and it passes, the legislature must come back to the people to overturn it. And that is harder for them to control.

So that’s the change they are proposing: to make it virtually impossible for Missouri citizens to propose and pass a constitutional amendment.

Here is how they are trying to accomplish that. Currently, it takes about 300,000 signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot by initiative petition. If you consider that a good petitioner, on an average day, can gather 10 signatures per hour then it takes 30,000 people hours to gather 300,000 signatures. That’s a very big job.

How hard is it? I went back to look at the last five election cycles to see. Of the 85 initiative petitions proposing constitutional amendments that were approved by the Secretary of State for circulation, ten made it on the ballot. Seventy five groups fell short. It IS a hard job.

But that’s too much grassroots power to these politicians in Jeff City.

Their goal is to try to make it even harder.

They are proposing to increase the qualifying requirement by at least 100,000 signatures. That adds another 10, 000 people hours to the job of qualifying a constitutional amendment.

And on top of that, there is another reality. When you talk to petition organizers, they will tell you that it costs as much as two million dollars to qualify an initiative. If additional signatures are required that price tag will go up.

But even that is not enough.

If by any chance, an amendment was to get on the ballot under these new rules, the Republicans have another change in mind to provide insurance that it won’t become law. They are increasing the popular vote required in an election to pass an amendment from a simple majority (50 percent) to two thirds (66.6 percent).

This makes the job virtually impossible, which is exactly what the politicians want. So I again looked at the historical record to see what the requirement would have done to past efforts:

  • In 2018 the CLEAN amendment did very well. It got 62 percent of the vote… short of two thirds.
  • Even the very popular Medical Marijuana fell short….65 percent.
  • In 1980, the conservative Hancock Amendment received 55 percent.
  • One of Missouri’s most popular policy exports, the 1940 Non Partisan Court Plan, passed with 55 percent.

None would have become law under new requirements.

They won’t admit it, but clearly the goal is to kill the citizen right to initiative petitions.

By the way, these Republicans don’t extend the same 2/3 requirement to their own proposals.

While they propose that amendments by citizens should be required to get 66.6 percent to pass, many of their anti-initiative bills require only 50 percent for amendments offered by legislators. So much for having any respect for the right of citizens to petition their government. 

Their plan is to place this proposal on this year’s November ballot AND, barring a legislative miracle, this WILL happen. We WILL have a fight on our hands.

As we have seen, democracy is at risk around the country. As citizens, our right to freely express ourselves is being challenged.

Missouri is now on the front lines of that battle.

A lot of money is going to be spent to silence our voices. Our currency is people power. We need to alert and mobilize our bases so that they understand what’s at stake. We can’t wait until June or July to get started.

We need to get the word out now.

(Ben Senturia is a life-long St Louisan who has been active in environmental and campaign finance reform issues. He currently is a member of Jobs with Justice’s Workers Rights Board steering committee, the board of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center and the Black Lives Matter Yard Sign Project.)


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