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Opinion: The initiative petition is a Missouri treasure

Missouri’s initiative petition system has been in place for 115 years. It allows citizens to put an issue on the ballot for a statewide vote. This critical tool, used through the years by citizens from all political persuasions is now under attack by lawmakers who want to curtail the people’s power

Thirty years ago, when faced with a similar effort by a different set of party politicians, then-Gov. John Ashcroft said: “It is through the initiative process that those who have no influence with elected representatives may take their cause directly to the people.”

Ballot measures are the people’s power. Each citizen can choose to add their signature to a petition and ultimately have the right to vote on the issue.

This valuable and trusted process is not easy, and the citizens of Missouri have not abused it. In more than a century, only 28 of 69 citizen-initiated Constitutional amendments have ever been approved. Many more proposed initiatives never got enough signatures to make it on the ballot.

The legislature is currently proposing 20 or so different bills that would make it harder to get an issue on the ballot and increase the threshold for an initiated measure to pass once on the ballot.

The current requirement for passage is a simple majority. Changes proposed in HJR79, which received a public committee hearing this week, would raise that requirement to a two-thirds vote.

That is an onerously high threshold — and it would be the highest of any state in our country. Of course, elected officials at every level – including our legislature — only need a simple majority to win their seats.

Through the initiative petition process, a large majority of voters recently approved a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana. Under the proposed new threshold, each would have failed.

As it is, it’s hard to meet the current requirement of gathering enough signatures from 8 percent of voters in six of Missouri’s eight Congressional districts to qualify for the statewide ballot.

HJR 79, sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, would increase that to 10 percent in all eight districts, requiring hundreds of thousands more signatures and making it almost impossible to get an issue on the ballot.

Some rural legislators support the geographic expansion, but it’s not necessary since current proposals for new Congressional maps would ensure that issues seeking to get on the ballot will require the support of metro, small town and rural voters.

If the General Assembly thinks hundreds of thousands of citizens must sign a petition to get it on the ballot, should a simple majority of legislators still be able to write an amendment to the Missouri Constitution and get it on a statewide ballot? That’s the double standard that would be in place if these ill-conceived ideas take root.

It’s hypocritical of the General Assembly to try to limit the citizens’ right to petition to get something on the ballot when 100 of our 197 legislators can approve ballot language to reverse a change to our Constitution that was approved by voters.

Amendment 3 clearly reversed the will of the larger majority of Missouri voters who supported Clean Missouri reforms.

The League of Women Voters of Missouri recognizes that the process to review signatures on initiative petitions places a burden on county clerks and other election officials. If change is needed in that area, we encourage legislators to allow signatures to be gathered and verified online. The Secretary of State has previously requested changes to the form that might facilitate faster verification of signatures.

Voters have told the League that they would like simpler ballot language. Many use unbiased voters guides our local Leagues produce to understand ballot measures. Our position is that the wording on the ballot to describe the measure must be clear, easy to understand and not misleading. We would support a process where people who are not incumbent politicians or partisan candidates write ballot language.

Small increases in the filing cost might discourage organizations from submitting multiple versions of ballot language. League members would not oppose an extra $25 or $50 or a gradual increase in filing fees, but many grassroots organizations such as ours would have a hard time paying a $500 fee.

Marilyn McLeod

The League believes that our democracy depends on the power of people to be directly involved in their government. The initiative petition process is a sacred and trusted right of the citizens of Missouri. It should not be restricted in any way that would end its usefulness.

The commentary by Marilyn McLeod is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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