JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's Aug. 5 elections could provide a case study for the ability of governors to affect proposed ballot measures, both politically and legally.
Five proposed constitutional amendments will go before voters this summer, instead of during the November elections, because of a decision by Gov. Jay Nixon.
The governor's prerogative is provided for in the Missouri Constitution and has been used by many chief executives over the years to shift measures off the general election ballot and on to the August primaries. Those decisions can carry political consequences and, as a recent court ruling has shown, may also have legal implications.
The political ramifications are perhaps best illustrated by proposed Constitutional Amendment 1, which seeks to create a right to farm similar to what already exists with the rights of free speech, assembly and religion.
The measure was referred to Missouri's 2014 ballot by the Republican-led legislature, with the support of some Democrats, by overwhelming vote margins in May 2013.
Assuming the measure would be on the November ballot, the Republican State Committee voted to endorse it in February and prepared to actively promote it. Rural Missouri residents tend to vote more for Republican legislative candidates than Democratic ones, so a farming amendment on the November ballot could presumably draw GOP-leaning voters to the polls.
But Nixon, a Democrat, announced in May that he was placing the right-to-farm measure on the August ballot.
"Obviously, Nixon threw us a curveball," Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Matt Wills said. Wills said the GOP still plans to encourage voters to support the measure, but, as of now, the party has no plans for a massive advertising campaign on its behalf.
The farming measure is opposed by a coalition that includes The Humane Society of the United States, for whom former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell is the vice president of outreach and engagement.
"If I was a Democrat governor and read that the GOP had named this as their (get-out-the-vote) effort, I might have thought something about it," Maxwell said about Nixon's decision to hold an August election. "I might have done that, too."
The legal ramifications of Nixon's decisions are perhaps best exemplified by Proposed Constitutional Amendment 5, which would enhance the right to keep and bear arms. The legislature, again aided by some Democrats, voted in early May to refer the measure to the 2014 ballot.
Nixon announced on May 23 that he was shifting the gun amendment to the August ballot. A week later, legislators delivered the gun amendment to Secretary of State Jason Kander, who solicited a cost estimate from the auditor's office, as required by law.
Kander officially certified the measure for the ballot on June 13. Opponents filed a legal challenge against the ballot summary that very same day.
While the case moved through the court process, local election authorities were having ballots printed to try to meet the June 24 start of absentee voting for the August elections.
By the time Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem was ready to rule on the case, he decided it was too late to order any changes to the ballot summary and dismissed the legal challenge as moot July 1, citing a state law that prohibits courts from ordering issues to be placed on the ballot less than six weeks before an election. Beetem concluded that the law also applies to court-ordered changes of ballot summaries.
The ruling has been appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which is to hear arguments July 14.
Attorney Chuck Hatfield represents the St. Louis police chief and a gun-control activist, who both challenged the measure. He said that if Beetem's decision is upheld, it could effectively allow governors to squelch lawsuits against ballot measures by shifting them to the August election.
"If you line up the dates, basically the judge is saying that it may not be possible from a timing standpoint to be able to challenge these summaries at all," Hatfield said.
So, a governor who doesn't like a particular ballot measure could diminish its political impact by placing it on the August ballot, but that also could hinder the ability of opponents to challenge it in court.