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Lawmakers attempt to stymie courts’ involvement with ballot initiative language

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A bill that would prevent the courts from rewriting summary ballot initiative language after it has been approved by the General Assembly was heard by the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee on Wednesday.

HB 850, sponsored by Rep. John Wiemann, would prevent courts from rewriting or editing summary ballot initiative language prior to it being placed on the ballot if it was approved by the General Assembly. 

“Any bill, including a joint resolution, in order to pass the General Assembly, must go through a rigorous process,” Wiemann said. “The legislative process includes a hearing in at least five committees. The resulting language, reviewed and debated by 197 elected officials over weeks of debate, should not be changed by a  single individual or judiciary branch.”

Last year, the summary ballot language for Amendment 3, better known as “Cleaner Missouri,” was rewritten after a Cole County judge ruled the language “misleading, unfair, and insufficient.”

The amendment, which was put to Missouri voters during the 2020 general election after passing through the House and Senate as SJR 38, overturned Clean Missouri, which was initially passed by the same mechanism in 2018. Both amendments made significant changes to the way political districts were drawn in the state.

Some civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are opposed to the bill.

“Judicial review of ballot summaries ensures an accurate representation of what is being presented to the public to prevent confusion, deception, and manipulation of the public by the legislature,” the ACLU said in written testimony. “By removing judicial review from this process altogether, this bill attempts to remove accountability for the legislature from our democratic process.”

A representative from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office testified in favor of the bill. The secretary of state’s main function is to oversee and administer elections in the state.

The committee also heard HB 685, which would standardize the age requirement for various county-level offices and district board memberships at 21 years old. A similar bill passed out of the House with overwhelming support and went to the Senate during the last regular session but stalled there. HB 556, which would require political subdivision and special district ballot measures be named sequentially, was heard as well.

All three bills will be voted on by the committee at a later date.