JEFFERSON CITY — One cold, windy day, Collins Chetwin stood outside an elementary school in Springfield, asking voters to add their signatures to a petition. If Chetwin and organizers gathered enough, they could get Medicaid expansion on the ballot.
One voter came every five to six minutes, and most politely declined. The day ended with Chetwin gathering about 30 signatures.
“Honestly, I was pretty disappointed,” Chetwin said in testimony submitted to the House Elections Committee. But when Chetwin returned to the office, organizers were overjoyed, happy for any gains they could make.
Initiative petitions are a way for Missouri citizens to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. Petitions currently have to meet a signature threshold from six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts. The number of verified signatures needed ranges from 171,592 to 188,537, depending on the districts targeted.
Now, Republican lawmakers are proposing a number of bills to make the amendment and petition process harder. Similar bills have come up in recent years, leading Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, to liken the continued hearings to "groundhog day."
The first of these measures, HJR79, could be debated by the House as soon as Monday.
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, the proposal would require signatures from every congressional district in the state and increase the percentage of required signatures to pass constitutional amendments.
The required number of signatures from registered voters in each district would grow to 10%, an increase from the current 8%. That change could require petitioners to gather several hundred thousand additional signatures, compared to what is required now.
The proposal makes no changes to the requirements to pass laws, only constitutional amendments. It also would require that any constitutional amendment pass with a two-thirds supermajority statewide.
“The Missouri Constitution is a living document,” Henderson said at the hearing on his proposal. “But it should not be an ever-expanding document."
Democrats say the measure would unnecessarily make an already difficult process harder.
“It’s almost killing the initiative petition process, to some degree,” said Rep. David Smith, D-Columbia, “and I feel like we should be honest with people and tell them that’s what it’s doing.”
Republicans control the elections committee 9-4, and HJR79 made it out of committee on a party-line vote. It now moves to the full House for debate. If passed by the Legislature, the resolution would be placed on the statewide ballot for voter consideration later this year.
Members of the majority party see the legislation as necessary to protect a near-sacred document from consistent change. Recently, initiative petitions have been used to place issues such as Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage increase and medical marijuana on the ballot, though the process has been used for conservative causes, too.
In 2020, 79 initiative petitions were approved for circulation by the Secretary of State’s office, and only one, Medicaid expansion, made it as a ballot measure. Nearly 70% of constitutional amendments to make the ballot since 2002 were proposed by the General Assembly, according to data from the Secretary of State’s website. The other roughly 30% were proposed by initiative petitions.
Henderson said the proposal requiring that signatures be collected in all congressional districts would give a stronger voice to rural parts of the state, because most petition signatures currently come from Missouri’s population centers. That sentiment is shared by Rep. Mike McGirl, R-Potosi, who sponsors a similar measure, HJR88. His proposal would keep the 8% threshold.
The elections committee is drafting a chart that would quantify the number of signatures needed for each measure. The measures would make the petition and amending process more difficult, and the philosophical divide is on just how hard it should be.
“The consistent message I hear all the way through all this isn’t that we want to make it difficult,” said elections committee Chairman Dan Shaul, R-Imperial. “We want to make it more of a challenge, but a fair challenge so that the constitution is representative of the entire state of Missouri."