JEFFERSON CITY — With absentee voting already underway for the August election, a Missouri judge is considering whether to strike down the ballot summaries prepared for voters on proposed constitutional amendments addressing gun rights and transportation taxes.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem heard arguments Thursday on lawsuits claiming that the summaries prepared by the Republican-led legislature are insufficient because they don't mention some aspects of the measures. The lawsuit against the transportation sales tax also challenges the official financial summary, which states that it would generate $480 million annually for the state and $54 million for local governments.
If Beetem rejects the ballot summaries, he could write new ones, which could invalidate any votes already cast under the current summaries. If he were to strike down the summaries without writing replacements, the measures could effectively be knocked off the ballot because the legislature is not in session to be able to approve new wording.
Attorneys representing groups in favor of the measures argued the court has no legal authority to issue orders now that absentee voting has begun. They said the lawsuits should be dismissed.
Beetem gave no timetable for when he will rule. But no matter Beetem's decision, the cases are likely to be appealed, extending the legal wrangling as the Aug. 5 election approaches.
One of the measures at issue is Constitutional Amendment 5. Its summary asks voters whether amend the constitution "to include a declaration that the right to keep and bear arms is a unalienable right and that the state government is obligated to uphold that right?"
Among those challenging the summary are the prosecutors from the city of St. Louis and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City. Their attorneys argued Thursday that the summary omits important provisions, including that gun-control laws would be subject to strict legal scrutiny and the measure deletes current constitutional wording allowing restrictions on concealed guns.
"It is a woefully insufficient title," attorney Heidi Doerhoff Vollet said.
Deputy Solicitor General Jeremiah Morgan, who defended the ballot summaries, said the reference to "unalienable" rights taps into common phrasing from the Declaration of Independence and encapsulates many of the measure's other provisions.
"It communicates to the ordinary voter that this is important," Morgan said.
A separate lawsuit by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare challenges proposed Constitutional Amendment 7, which asks voters whether to impose a three-quarter-cent sales tax for transportation that would last for 10 years.
It contends the summary is insufficient because it omits various things, including that the state "use tax" also would be raised. The lawsuit also says the summary fails to put the tax increase in context by noting the current sales tax rate is 4.225 percent.
The challenge to the financial summary contends that lawmakers didn't have a comprehensive review of the effect on state and local revenues when they approved the total $534 million projection. It notes, among other things, that Gov. Jay Nixon's administration has projected a higher 10-year cost of $6.1 billion, and it asks the judge to order the state auditor to prepare a new financial summary.
The cases have some urgency because absentee ballots were to be available to Missouri voters beginning this past Tuesday.
In Cole County, where the court hearings were held, Clerk Marvin Register said his ballots did not arrive until Thursday. But by mid-Thursday afternoon, he said, two people already had cast absentee votes.