Missourians should be keeping an eye on the legislature’s actions to limit citizens’ control of the political process. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the forthcoming $1,400 many of us will receive from the federal government, and national attention given to Sen. Roy Blunt and Sen. Josh Hawley, most citizens won’t notice the ever-creeping effort by the Missouri legislature to limit citizen authority.
In America, we give a lot of lip service to “we the people,” “the people’s House” and “democracy.” We must wake up to current legislative efforts to reduce our influence, or citizens will have less real influence than we idealize in Fourth of July speeches.
The first section of Article 1 of the Missouri Constitution reads: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; that all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.”
HJR 20 passed by the House will, however, reduce the power of the people to control our elected officials by increasing the required vote to amend our state constitution to a two-thirds supermajority vote for passage rather than the present majority requirement. The proposed resolution also increases signatures required to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to 10% of voters in each congressional district rather than the 8% of voters, and 5% for petitions proposing statutory changes, in each of two-thirds of the congressional districts in the state currently required by Article III Section 50.
Another bill, SJR 11, requires that initiative petitions shall only take effect when approved by a majority of the registered voters in the state rather than a majority of voters actually voting in the most recent election. This change doesn’t sound like much, but it is artfully designed to be a rather substantial difference with a drastic impact.
According to the Secretary of State Registered Voters in Missouri, there were 4.3 million registered voters in 2020 with 3.02 million votes cast for president that year. A majority of the 4.3 million registered voters would be approximately 2.15 million.
For an initiative to be passed, it would therefore need approval of 2.15 million voters of the 3.02 million votes cast in 2020 — that’s a de facto threshold of more than 71% compared to the present requirement of 50% plus one. Changing “voters” to “registered voters” in SJR 11 appears to be just a little, innocent change, but it will make adopting a provision proposed by initiatives much more difficult.
There are several bills that may be worthwhile because they clarify the initiative process and reduce potential abuse, but the larger concern seems to be creating obstacles that reduce citizen influence.
Why are these obstacles to citizen involvement being proposed at this time? Most likely, it is a response to the citizen initiative for expanding Medicaid and the legislator-proposed repeal of the Clean Missouri initiative adopted by citizens in 2018. Legislators placed Amendment 3 on the ballot in 2020 to nullify the changes adopted by citizens two years earlier.
One issue of citizen initiative action relates to legislative redistricting and concern about blatant gerrymandering. Missouri should adopt a nonpartisan redistricting process, be it citizen panels or judicial boards, but such changes are less likely if the current proposals to alter the initiative petition requirements are adopted.
An example of how these proposed amendments would affect future Missouri reforms is changing legislative term limits. Any change will become more unlikely if HJR 20 and SJR 11, increasing the threshold of approval from majority to two-thirds, are adopted. Missouri voters adopted legislator term limits of eight years by an initiative with 75% support in 1992. An eight-year limit in the House and in the Senate has proven to be too short, causing legislators to become almost immediately focused on their post-legislative careers rather than on their constituents. Furthermore, too restrictive term limits tips the power of checks and balances in favor of the executive branch. The eight-year limit makes it unlikely the legislature will engage in legislative oversight. One reasonable reform to term limits is to combine the eight-year limits to make it a total of 16 years in the legislature. Such change is more unlikely if the approval threshold is increased.
Once the approval threshold and the petition requirement are increased, it is likely the constitution will be changed forever. Here is why: Ballot campaigns are very difficult to organize and fund because the public good is the issue not the election of a specific candidates. Other than perhaps the League of Women voters and academics, few people focus on the effectiveness and the integrity of the policy-making process. Instead, they focus on a more direct personal interest such as CAFOs or toll roads.
Voters should contact Missouri senators and representatives asking them to protect citizens’ role in the political process.