Missouri is one of 26 states that uses an initiative petition process. It is also one of many Republican-controlled states where lawmakers are seeking to make it harder for citizens to circumvent their legislature and place a proposed law or constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot.
Initiative petitions have been used in Missouri to enact major policy — such as legalizing medical marijuana in 2018 and recreational marijuana in 2022. After the legislature for years refused to expand Medicaid eligibility, Missourians did so with an initiative-led constitutional amendment in 2020. A 1980 initiative petition effort, known as the Hancock amendment, continues to have a profound effect on Missouri’s budget and tax policy.
Citizens have also used a companion referendum process to overturn laws passed by legislators — most recently a right-to-work law affecting union representation in 2018.
The petition process has been available to Missourians since 1908, but it hasn’t always been used so prolifically. According to Ballotpedia, a digital political reference source, the number of statewide petitions filed in Missouri has increased from 23 in 2010 to 91 in 2022. In 2018, Missouri saw 373 petitions filed, although many of them were similar versions dealing with a few issues. On average, 3.5% of petitions filed are actually certified by the secretary of state’s office.
Some of the changes go straight into the Missouri Constitution, which is the fifth longest in the nation, thanks in part to the heavy use of initiative petitions. Lawmakers in Missouri have raised concerns about writing law through constitutional amendments, and cite the document’s growing length as a reason to make the initiative process more onerous. They’ve spent past legislative sessions debating changes, and have introduced new bills for 2023 looking to reshape the process.
University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire said the inability to make changes to major programs after they’re in the constitution is a concern for lawmakers.
“When something’s in the constitution, it’s not impossible to change, but it’s difficult. And it’s not impossible to work around, but it is hard to do,” Squire said. “There’s some real concern from the legislative side about whether they’re being hamstrung by voter initiatives and in ways that make it difficult for the legislature to do what the legislature needs to do.”
Voters also have the potential to use initiative petitions to draft or revise state statutes, but the legislature has overturned measures that haven’t been cemented into the constitution. Even Medicaid expansion, which was solidified into the constitution, has met resistance from the legislature, with attempts to prevent funding the expansion.
Voters aren’t the only ones who can amend the state constitution. The Missouri legislature has the power to place constitutional amendments, called “joint resolutions,” on the ballot through the legislative process.
Generally, constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by lawmakers are more likely to gain voter approval than measures placed on the ballot through citizen petitions. According to a study from the University of Missouri, from 1910 to 2008 the General Assembly placed 143 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and 63% were approved by voters. In contrast, 21 amendments qualified for the ballot from the initiative petition process, and voters approved 35% of them.
What sort of voter initiatives get on the ballot?
Initiative petitions are most commonly used to get voters to weigh in on more controversial topics, according to the MU report.
“Revision tends to involve more controversial matters, whether initiated by the voters or by the General Assembly,” the report says. “The Legislature tends to submit important issues to the voters when public opinion is unsettled. An issue that is important enough to stimulate an initiative petition drive is always important to an intense minority, but perhaps not to the voters at large.”
Missouri isn’t the only state where attention-grabbing issues tend to dominate ballot measures. California, Michigan and Vermont used the initiative petition process this year to establish state constitutional rights to abortion. Voters in Kansas and Kentucky rejected attempts by their legislatures to draw the right to an abortion out of their constitutions.
What an initiative petition could mean for abortion in Missouri
After Missouri last summer signed into effect a law banning abortion in the state, Democrats in the legislatures and others began strategizing about a possible 2024 initiative petition enshrining the right to abortion into the constitution.
In Missouri and elsewhere, initiative petition campaigns on controversial issues can draw massive spending.
In 2022, the amendment to legalize recreational marijuana raised more than $6.6 million, much of it from medical dispensaries around the state that can now market recreational marijuana, according to campaign finance reports.
“In part, costs are driven by the interests that are at stake,” Squire said. “There are some financial interests and special interest groups. We may have an abortion measure on the ballot in 2024. There will be a lot of money that pours in probably on both sides for that.”
The effort to obstruct initiative petitions
Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are assessing initiative petition processes in their states and looking for ways to curb the number of measures that make it onto ballots.
In Arizona, voters recently supported a measure requiring an initiative to gain 60% voter approval, as opposed to the 50% simple majority needed before.
In Ohio, lawmakers are proposing to raise approval required from voters for citizen initiative petitions to 60%, while keeping approval needed from voters on measures that the legislature advances at 50%. Florida, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma are also considering measures to make the process more difficult.
Squire told The Beacon that Missouri is not an anomaly when it comes to proposed changes coming from the legislature.
“It has become an issue in terms of the ease of getting something put on the ballot, and then the requirements for having something adopted once it’s on the ballot,” Squire said. “Those are both concerns that are being raised in Republican-controlled legislatures right now.”
Similar measures have already been introduced in Missouri. Currently, to qualify for a ballot, citizen-led initiative petitions require signatures from at least 8% of the voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election, and the signatures must be gathered in at least six of the state’s eight congressional districts.
Some lawmakers are considering raising the threshold to two-thirds voter approval for a citizens’ initiative to pass, or requiring signatures to be collected from each congressional district. Some proposals seek to raise the threshold for initiative petitions, but leave it at 50% for amendments introduced by the General Assembly.
By raising the requirements, Squire said, the state could end up limiting who participates in the already difficult task of passing a ballot measure.
“If they try to raise the signature requirements, that will mean basically the only things to get on the ballot are those that have strong organizations pushing them,” Squire said. “And probably strong organizations that have the financial resources to achieve that. It’s already hard and expensive.”
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