In the past year, Missouri voters have had the chance to vote directly on several different issues affecting their daily lives through ballot initiatives, but does it undermine the legislative process?
That question is being asked in the halls of the state Capitol and many lawmakers feel the initiatives that are making their way onto the ballot don’t really reflect the true values of the state and are instead being pushed by outside forces.
Last year alone, Missouri voters bypassed the Republican-dominated state Legislature on issues involving union membership, medical marijuana, minimum wage, redistricting and open records issues.
The ballot initiatives give the people the direct power to vote on issues, but local state lawmakers feel they may be misinformed by groups pushing the issues and may not fully understand the gravity of changing the state Constitution.
The ballot initiative process was a major issue State Rep. John Simmons, R- Krakow, campaigned on and he now sits on the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee.
Last week he filed two bills that would raise the fee for filing initiative petitions to $350 and increase the total number of signatures required to get measures on the statewide ballots.
The increased signatures would also be required from a larger number of the 114 Missouri counties and that would better ensure the true feelings of voters across the state, supporters say.
“Right now items can get on the ballot with signatures from only 10 to 12 counties,” Simmons said. “I think signatures should be required from three-fifths of the counties.”
Simmons said the threshold of overall votes needed to pass a measure needs to be raised as well, and feels the elected officials must be a part of the lawmaking process.
“We are not a direct democracy,” Simmons said. “We want citizens to have access, but there has to be a threshold. We have to have more of a requirement than 50 percent plus one.”
Simmons added the state Constitution needs to serve as a guidebook and standard, and instead it is becoming more like the revised book of statutes with the constant changes.
After discussion with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, Simmons explained a scenario of a statewide election with only 30 to 35 percent turnout.
“If a ballot item only needs 50 percent plus one to pass, you are looking at only 16 to 17 percent of the voters in the state making a change to the Constitution,” Simmons explained. “We are not taking away access. Would you want only 15 percent of the General Assembly approving laws?”
State Rep. Nate Tate, R-St. Clair, says Missouri’s criteria for getting an initiative on the ballot are some of the most lenient in the nation and that makes the state vulnerable.
“Missouri is being targeted by liberal groups and billionaires who don’t even live in this state,” Tate said. “A lot of things are not thoroughly vetted and can be sold to the voters as whatever the person proposing it says it is.”
Currently for a ballot initiative to be passed it only requires a simple majority of voters to approve the measure on a statewide ballot.
Tate added he also has spoken to Ashcroft about the process.
“Something needs to be done, but I’m not sure what that is,” Tate said. “The threshold needs to be raised to 65 percent instead of the simple majority.”
Tate used the recent passage of Right to Work as an example of big money coming into Missouri to overturn laws the Legislature had already passed and Clean Missouri being sold to voters simple as ethics reform.
“These initiatives come with unintended consequences,” Tate said. “They are making changes to the Constitution without the legislative process and if something goes wrong it may take years to change it.”
State Rep. Aaron Griesheimer, R-Washington, agrees with his colleagues and believes the sometimes controversial measures being placed on the ballots are a ploy to get more voters of a specific mindset or party affiliation to the poles on Election Day.
“It’s no secret both sides put things on the ballot just to get out the vote,” Griesheimer said. “I don’t see that as a problem and I don’t want to keep anyone from having a voice.”
Griesheimer added his real concerns are when changes are being made to the Constitution without the proper process.
He also used Right to Work as an example when the Legislature passed the laws, then the unions came in and got the people to overturn it.
“Anybody wanting to change the Constitution can go around the General Assembly,” he said. “It’s a great example of democracy, but we’ve got to tighten it up.”