Democrat filibuster derails GOP measure to change initiative petition process

Republican push to make it harder to amend the constitution ran into fierce resistance from Democrats

By: - May 11, 2022 5:42 pm

The measure originally would have asked voters to increase the number of signatures needed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).

After hours of filibustering in the Missouri Senate, including a spirited game of charades, Democrats stopped an attempt by Republicans Wednesday to make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process. 

The measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, originally would have asked voters to increase the number of signatures needed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot. 

However, that language was cut, and a narrower version was offered on the Senate floor Wednesday — to ask voters in November to raise the threshold for an initiative petition to be approved by voters from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority for constitutional changes. And it would only apply to constitutional amendments that would increase taxes or fees or obligate the state to appropriate funds of $10 million or more in any of the first five fiscal years. 

The measure would also ask voters to require people who sign initiative petitions to be “American citizens,” which is already a requirement, and to establish public-comment forums after petitions are filed with the secretary of state’s office. 

“Our constitution is a sacred document, and it’s important that we get buy-in from all of our citizens in order to change it,” said Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, who was handling the bill in the Senate. “It takes 50% now, but I think setting a little bit higher bar for that is important.” 

However, there was no version of the bill the Democrats were willing to accept. 

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said early on in the discussion that she was prepared to hold the floor until the legislature adjourns at 6 pm. Friday, a sentiment repeated by several of her colleagues.

“People are finding their voices all over the state,” May said. “And their voices shouldn’t be silenced by people they elected by a simple majority. It is an affront to the process. It’s an affront to democracy, to what we stand for.”

Missouri Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City (photo courtesy of Missouri Senate Communications).

Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, cited a March poll by Data for Progress, where 84% of questioned Missouri voters supported the petition initiative process — that included 83% of Democratic voters, 87% of Independents, and 84% of Republicans.

“As we come to the last few days of session, I just become very perplexed by the fact that we take on issues that make it harder for folks to participate in the democratic process than focusing on laws that ultimately enhance their quality of life,” Williams said.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said she was “offended” by the measure’s language to “allow only American citizens to sign initiative petitions.” 

“It’s trying to make people believe that someone who should not be is participating in our initiative petition process,” Schupp said.

Henderson’s legislation was among nearly 20 proposals filed by Republicans to increase the requirements for initiative petitions to succeed. 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. 

During a January House committee hearing, Rep. Jeff Coleman, R-Grain Valley, pointed to recent voter-approved constitutional amendments as the reason lawmakers need to take action.

Specifically, Coleman referenced the 2018 Clean Missouri initiative petition, which reworked the legislative redistricting process and was largely funded by out-of-state interests.

“You can go back to Clean Missouri as a really good example of the monies that came into our state from outside because they wanted to change our Constitution,” Coleman said.

Last legislative session, Republicans pushed similar measures, but they didn’t succeed. And many of the same advocates who fought them last year have done so again.

“The practical and financial hurdles to qualifying for the ballot are already considerable,” said Richard von Glahn, policy director of Missouri Jobs with Justice, in a press statement Wednesday, “with the vast majority of proposed initiative petitions failing to even obtain the minimum number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot.”

During the January hearing, Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said Missouri’s initiative petition system has been in place for more than 100 years and it’s a state “treasure.” 

“Our organization believes that the two-thirds [vote] of an election is so high that it’s virtually impossible to reach,” McLeod said, “so that just seems an unnecessary lift.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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