«RM75»«FC»COL28.MDH - Initiative and Referenda: Does Missouri's System Still Empower Voters?
Missouri is one of 24 states that permits initiative petition -- placing statutory or constitutional changes directly before voters for their approval. This concept was born of the progressive movement that swept America at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1904, the Missouri Direct Legislation League, led by St. Louis attorney Silas L. Moser, lobbied the Legislature to place an initiative petition and referendum amendment on the ballot. It was defeated. In 1907, they tried again and embarked on a campaign that included a statewide direct mail piece and a year-long campaign involving four speaking engagements per week by Illinois progressive leader John Z. White.
Missouri voters made big changes in 1908 -- including electing state Attorney General Herbert S. Hadley as governor -- the first Republican elected to that office since 1870. They also approved the initiative petition and referendum amendment to the Constitution by more than 35,000 votes.
Initiative petitions and referenda were intended to help individuals -- voters-- have more power in self-government. In recent years in Missouri however, a dramatic increase in the number of initiative petitions attempted and political undertones for placing issues on the ballot have grown far beyond the individual empowerment the progressives sought.
Essentially, an initiative petition allows voters to circumvent the General Assembly and themselves make statutory changes or adopt constitutional amendments. A referendum allows lawmakers to themselves place an issue on the ballot to leave the final decision to the voters.
To place an initiative on the ballot in Missouri to make a statutory change requires petitions containing valid signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the preceding election for governor, collected from six of the state's eight congressional districts. To place a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires a valid signatures equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the preceding election for governor from six of the eight congressional districts.
Lawmakers can subsequently change statutory language, even if approved by voters. Only voters themselves can change the Constitution.
Missouri's first initiative was placed on the ballot in 1910. Between that election and the general election of 2014, 84 initiatives have appeared on Missouri's ballots. Of those, 36 have passed and 38 have been defeated by voters.
In 1924, voters used the initiative to pass the bonds to fund highway construction in the state. In the 1930s, voters passed a ballot measure creating the Missouri Department of Conservation -- and later used the initiative to fund Conservation with a dedicated sales tax to keep revenues out of political reach. In the 1940s, voters used the initiative to adopt the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan, which still stands as a national model. In the 1980s, voters adopted the Hancock Amendment limiting growth in state revenues. In 1992, voters imposed term limits on state lawmakers. In 1994, an initiative was used to approve gambling in Missouri.
In recent years, however, issues have drifted from not just empowering voters but to to persuading voters through the introduction of political wedge issues... issues intended to get voters to the polls and support candidates identifying with those issues.
This year, for example, 90 different petitions were approved by the Secretary of State for circulation -- more than have appeared on all Missouri election ballots since 1910.
Seven of these involved some form of legalizing marijuana. Nine of the petitions involved tobacco taxes. Ten involved the state's minimum wage law. A whopping 20 involved the General Assembly -- largely district boundaries and limits on campaign contributions. Another 16 involving elected officials in Missouri.
This petition circulation approval is the beginning, not the end, of a long initiative process. But the volume of the proposals and their political divisive nature, one might well wonder whether this process still empowers voters or has instead become a tool of political persuasion here in Missouri.
[After a career in journalism, Mark Hughes became a top, non-partisan policy analyst for Missouri government including the state Senate, state Treasurer's Office and the utility-regulating PSC. He has been an observer and analyst of state government since the administration of Gov. Kit Bond.]