The Missouri Senate on Thursday passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase the amount of voter support needed for constitutional amendments proposed by citizens to become part of the state constitution.
The Republican-led measure, which would require voter approval before it is put into place, passed with a party-line vote of 24-10. It is the product of delicate maneuverings in which GOP lawmakers have sought to make it harder for citizens to enact laws and policies through the initiative process without appearing to undercut a rite of populist government in the state.
While Republicans have discussed reining in the process for several years — and Gov. Mike Parson has called for a higher bar for passing initiative petitions — the task gained urgency for GOP lawmakers this year because of the possibility that groups may attempt to pass an initiative petition returning some access to abortion procedures in Missouri.
Currently, initiative petitions that are certified by the secretary of state need simple-majority support of more than 50% of voters who cast ballots in a statewide election. If voters were to approve the measure, HJR 34, initiative petitions or lawmaker-proposed constitutional amendments would either need support from 57% of voters or from a simple majority across the state and in five of Missouri’s eight congressional districts.
What happens now?
The Senate made changes to the constitutional amendment that originated in the House, meaning the measure will need another round of approval from the lower chamber before it is finally agreed to and passed. The General Assembly is set to adjourn for the spring on May 12.
If lawmakers can agree on a version of the amendment, it would not go to the governor for his signature. Because it proposes changes to the state constitution, it would have to be approved by voters. It would appear on the November 2024 statewide ballot, and is expected to be heavily contested.
In debate on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Jill Carter, a Republican from Newton County, noted that some attempts in Republican-led states to raise the threshold for constitutional amendments to pass have not been able to garner voter support.
“South Dakota’s 55% majority failed in 2018,” Carter said. “They tried to require 55% and it failed. Fifty-five percent is lower than the 57% we’re talking about right here… so I just have a little bit of concern about the 57% threshold based on all of these other election results that similar language has been tried.”
Measure to alter constitutional amendments could be on shaky ground
The measure passed earlier by the House would require at least 60% voter support to pass an initiative petition. Republican lawmakers in the Senate voiced their concern about that threshold and eventually amended the measure to require 57% voter support.
Some major policy changes have come from voter-supported initiative petitions in Missouri. For example, in 2020, Missourians approved expanding Medicaid with 53.2% of the vote. In November, marijuana legalization passed with 53.1% of the vote.
The Senate version of the constitutional amendment would also limit lawmakers from trying to alter voter-approved changes to state law for five years after their passage, unless the change has 57% support in both chambers. In the past, the General Assembly has undone some voter-approved changes.
The House Democratic Caucus pointed to the Senate’s watered-down version of the House’s constitutional amendment as an indicator that lawmakers know the measure could be on shaky ground once it is in front of voters.
“It started at two-thirds, then they lowered it to 60 percent then, they lowered it again to 57 percent,” the caucus said in a tweet. “Because they know voters will reject efforts to take power away from them. Government belongs to the people, and we’ll fight to keep it that way.”
Members of the GOP have pointed to the state’s current simple-majority provision as one that could disenfranchise rural voters due to the state’s concentrated population centers. Harrisonville Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican, said increasing the threshold by votes required and where those votes of support come from will keep the state constitution from becoming a book of state statutes.
“That is not what the constitution is meant to be,” Brattin said. “So it is supposed to be something where you do have broad support, but everybody has weighed in on it. But currently if you look at the past adoptions of these initiative petitions, particularly…. there’s only a certain percentage that comes from certain areas, and it fails abysmally everywhere else. Yet, it’s still adopted. And that’s what needs to be rectified.”
Allegations of dirty tricks
Advocates of expanding access to abortion in Missouri have been eyeballing the initiative petition process as a means for undoing the legislature’s strict ban on the procedure.
Opponents of the measure have accused Republicans of trying to deceive voters with the ballot language on the proposed constitutional amendment.
As written, the ballot summary would ask Missourians to approve allowing only U.S. citizens and Missouri residents to vote on any constitutional amendment. That provision is already in place in Missouri. The summary would then ask if lawmakers should be able to alter voter-approved state law changes, and then — at the bottom — ask if the threshold for passage of constitutional amendments should be raised.
“Some politicians in Jefferson City are hoping they can trick voters with racist language while they rig the rules for this power grab,” Caitlyn Adams, the executive director of Missouri Jobs with Justice Voter Action, said in a news release.