Republicans renew push to make it harder to change Missouri’s constitution

A House committee on Wednesday is expected to vote on 11 proposals targeting the initiative petition process

Exterior Missouri State Capitol building
Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Photo by ©Walter Bibikow)

When Alice Barber was collecting signatures to put the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018, she once stood outside the Springfield DMV in the snow for three hours — until her hands went numb inside her gloves.

“I got about fifteen signatures,” she recently told the Missouri House elections committee. “The ballot initiative process is already difficult. Volunteers spend long hours, often in adverse weather conditions, collecting ten or twenty signatures at a time.”

Barber was among a handful of former volunteers for initiative petition campaigns who testified last week in opposition to 11 Republican-sponsored bills aimed at making it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution. 

Each of the bills is expected to be voted out of committee Wednesday afternoon. 

One would require that ballot initiatives first be approved by the legislature before going to the voters. Another proposes the state collect $500 for each initiative petition filed. Several would require signatures be gathered in all eight districts, instead of just six, and increase the percentage of voters needed for a petition to qualify. Another requires constitutional amendments to win a majority of registered voters, instead of a majority of votes cast on Election Day. 

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Republican proponents say the measures impede outside interests from pushing amendments to the Missouri Constitution. In recent years, Missouri’s constitution has been amended by initiative petition to rein in campaign spending, expand Medicaid eligibility and legalize medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana was pushed a lot by outside influences from California, Colorado, other places that had some big operations,” said Rep. John Simmons, a Republican from Franklin County and sits on the committee. “I think that’s maybe the fear of the election, and why we’re obviously hearing these types of measures.”

Democrats argue the GOP legislation would make it more expensive for grassroots efforts without actually impacting deep-pocketed interests. Republicans shouldn’t deny citizens the right to bypass the legislature when they feel they are being ignored, they contend. 

“If we did our job in the first place, citizens wouldn’t have to resort to that,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “I hope that the committee is looking at this through a lens of how we can increase citizen access, while we can look at the outside dollars and things that folks may be concerned about.”

Legislative veto

In addition to the bills expected to be approved by committee Wednesday, another measure was passed on a party-line committee vote last week that would prohibit courts from “rewriting or editing” ballot language or summaries.

Last year, a Cole County judge rewrote the ballot language for Amendment 3, which was written and approved by the legislature in order to replace a redistricting process approved by voters in 2018.

Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled the summary of the amendment was “insufficient and unfair” because it failed to inform voters that adopting the amendment would “eliminate redistricting rules Missourians overwhelmingly adopted two years ago to combat political gerrymandering and replace them with a redistricting process similar in substance to the one they just voted to abandon.”

An appeals court would rewrite the summary again a few weeks later. 

Voters ultimately approved Amendment 3 last November.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, would require legislative approval for initiative petitions before they go on the ballot.

Eggleston said his goal is to prevent errors in ballot language from becoming part of the state’s constitution — which would require another statewide vote to fix.

“When these things pass, they go in warts and all and there are ramifications of that,” Eggleston said.

Missouri is among 16 states that allows for “direct initiative,” meaning qualifying proposals for constitutional amendments go directly on the ballot, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures

Eggleston is proposing that Missouri join two other states, Massachusetts and Mississippi, that only allow for “indirect” constitutional initiatives, where the state legislature has to sign off first. 

“Being a more right-leaning state, I think we have probably been targeted by more of these left-leaning groups that are from out of state,” Eggleston said. “I think that’s a bit concerning.”

The increasing number of petitions filed was another reason proponents said justifies the need for lawmakers to oversee the initiative petitions. 

In 2020, there were 148 initiative and referendum petitions filed, compared to 14 in 2004, said Simmons. 

Kevin Fitzgerald, a St. Louis resident, testified in opposition to initiative petition bills, during a Feb. 10 House committee hearing. (Screenshot of meeting livestream.)

However, in 2020, only 77 were approved to circulate for signatures, and only three ended up on the ballot. In 2004, 14 were approved for circulation and two went on the ballot.

Kevin Fitzgerald, a St. Louis resident who testified last week to the House committee, said he’s volunteered on several initiative petition campaigns and the process is already highly difficult. 

“Very few people put their signatures and their personal information on a document that they don’t understand or believe in,” Fitzgerald said. 

Simmons said he doesn’t want to make it more difficult for volunteers like Fitzgerald, but said it’s currently “too low of a threshold” to change the constitution. 

“I’m trying to protect the constitution,” Simmons said.

ACLU of Missouri’s Sara Baker called the GOP bills a “power grab.”

“In all of these instances,” she said, “you see the legislature trying to say, ‘We need to have more control over this process.’ That’s not a functional way for democracy to go forward.”

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