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Ashcroft aims to reform the initiative petition process in a content-neutral way


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Following the last election cycle, talk of overhauling the process is drawing renewed interest. Less than 2 percent of initiative petitions filed with the Secretary of State’s Office turned in signatures. The IP process led to the voters approving significant constitutional and statutory changes in 2018.

The trick to changing the initiative petition process will be doing it in a content-neutral way, according to the Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Overhauling the system is not a new topic, just one that has gained a renewed spotlight as the 100th General Assembly is set to convene.

“This has been a two-year process because there is a real concern about how do we do it in such a way that protects the right of the people to petition their government for redress but also says, ‘wait a minute…why should we be subsidizing someone who files 60 petitions and isn’t going to get signatures on any of them,’” said Ashcroft.

He pointed to the differences between the 2008 and 2018 election cycles on why changes to the current system are needed.

In the 2008 cycle, there were 55 initiative petitions filed, 25 were approved for circulation, and 3 made it onto the ballot. In the 2018 cycle, there were 371 initiative petitions filed, 148 were approved for circulation, and 5 made it onto the ballot.

Specifically looking at the initiative petitions for the 2018 election, one Missourian filed 60 petitions, another filed 57 petitions, and another filed 30 petitions. In all, only 32 different Missourians filed the 371 initiative petitions received by the Secretary of State’s Office.

“If you are gaming the system to try to get a magic word used or a word not used in your initiative petition by filing 10 or 20 of them, I just think that brings disrepute on the whole process. I want the people to have faith in that process,” said Ashcroft.

The ability for Missourians to propose laws and constitutional amendments is a right guaranteed in the state’s constitution. This process gives citizens the ability to directly take part in the Missouri democracy.

Every single initiative petition filed is handled my three different statewide offices. The Auditor’s Office evaluates the potential fiscal impact of the proposal on the state and counties, the Attorney General’s Offices reviews the petition based on legal requirements, and the Secretary of State’s Office prepares a proposed ballot summary statement.

In the 2018 election cycle, three major topics were taken directly to the voters through the initiative petition process. Medical marijuana legalization, an ethics overhaul of the General Assembly, and a minimum wage hike are all Democratic-backed issues that got the voters stamp of approval after the measures bypassed the legislature and were taken directly to citizens.

And the process has already begun for the 2020 election cycle.

The problem that stakeholders are finding with the process is that the Secretary of State’s Office has been bombarded with hundreds of petitions — exponentially more than a decade ago. Some Missourians will file dozens of petitions aiming to get a specific wording on the ballot language, some never attempt to gather signatures on petitions approved for circulation, and others file petitions that are incomprehensible.

“Section 67.1572rsmo, act invoking. 2.provide for incorporate a county of .mo, homeless shelter district act law entity, under section 67.1572rsmo,” states one initiative petition filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. Another sought to tell women when arrested that they have the right to a big shirt.

As of January 8, 2019 — two months after the general election, 33 petitions have been filed for the next election, 24 of which are from four individuals. None have yet to be approved for circulation. One Missourian filed four petitions on the same topic, each with slightly different wording.

“I think this is a process we can make better, we can make more secure, without taking away the ability of the people to petition,” said Ashcroft. “This ability to redress the government for grievances is important.”

When it comes to making changes to the process, Ashcroft repeatedly stressed the need for it to be done in a content-neutral way. He noted that it is the Secretary of State’s job to be a neutral referee in the process and that the only folks who should be judging the content of petitions are the voters.

“The problem is how do we do it in a content-neutral way because you don’t want the Secretary of State saying ‘Oh, I don’t like your idea, it’s rejected.’ And that is what has taken us the most time: How do we put up barriers to frivolous things that are content neutral and are not true barriers for the people to be able to get something done if they want,” said Ashcroft.

Through taking an in-depth look at the current process, talking with lawmakers and stakeholders, and evaluating other states’ systems, a few ideas have been thrown around at how to do that very task.

Instituting a refundable filing fee for initiative petitions is one idea for decreasing the so-called frivolous filings. There isn’t a magic amount for the filing fee, Ashcroft notes, but it needs to balance between being a deterrent for abuse on the system and not being a barrier for Missourians trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

To be on the ballot as a candidate in Missouri, the state does require a filing fee. It costs $200 to run for a statewide office, $100 for state senator, and $50 for state representative. None are refundable.

Looking at other states, California requires a $2,000 filing fee for all initiative petitions while Washington state charges $5. Neither are refundable.

Current proposals in Missouri include a $250 to $500 refundable filing fee for initiative petitions. Which is less than the cost to print out the petitions for signatures collections, Ashcroft noted. Making the filing fee refundable upon turning in signatures would be a way hopefully deter folks from dozens of petitions that they have no interest in circulating while not preventing Missourians from exercising their constitutional rights.

“The idea being, we don’t want to stop people from being part of the process, but we want to stop the frivolous side of it,” said Ashcroft.

There have been several bills pre-filed for the 100th General Assembly to consider on the very topic. One looks to increase to signature requirements, one looks to start a $500 filing fee per petition, and another seeks to charge per signature page turned in.

Ashcroft noted that there is not one specific measure he is looking at as the so-called correct way to improve the current system, rather he looking to open debate and for lawmakers to find the best solution to the problem.

“One thing we have tried to do with the legislature is, we had some bills introduced and we said…throw every idea you have into those [bills], let’s have a good conversation about it and let’s make sure we have an open debate about what should be done,” said Ashcroft.

“We want to find a non-partisan, good government way…We do want people to be active, we do want people to be civically-minded and to be active in government and active in politics.”