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Missourian sues over initiative petition ballot language


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Ballot language issued by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on a bevy of initiative petitions, all filed by the same Missourian, has spurred a legal challenge.

Mary Anne Sedey filed a lawsuit in Cole County Friday alleging the “biased and inflammatory” summaries of petitions were “intentionally cherry-picked” and described “in as loaded and pejorative terms as possible.”

Sedey, an attorney in St. Louis, has had 16 initiative petitions — all related to voter registration and similar in nature — approved to gather signatures.

The lawsuit claims the ballot language does not paint an accurate picture of the measures.

“Argumentative” ballot language issued by Aschroft is “likely to mislead and deceive voters into thinking that voters can go anywhere in the state they want to vote for any issues they please, neither of which is true,” according to the lawsuit.

The ballot language of one version asks voters to amend the constitution to:

  • Establish automatic voter registration of individuals at least 16 years old from state agency lists (including the departments of revenue, social services and conservation);

  • Allow voters on Election Day to appear at the wrong polling place, vote on a wrong ballot, and have election judges later transfer the votes to the right ballot;

  • Allow voters to sign up to permanently vote by mail, with voting by mail allowed during the six weeks before each election; and

  • Make voters’ method of voting a public record (mail, in person or military).

The lawsuit contends a “simple, concise, non-argumentative” summary which “includes all central features of the initiative petitions” would ask voters to amend the constitution to:

  • Create a system of automatic voter registration;

  • Allow permanent enrollment to receive absentee ballots by mail;

  • Allow early and no-fault absentee voting (in-person or by mail), starting six weeks
    before an election;

  • Require auditing of election returns for irregularities;

  • Extend the time period for accepting and counting military ballots;

  • Require the counting of provisional ballots cast in a voter’s election jurisdiction, only for measures on which the voter is entitled to vote; and

  • Allow eligible citizens ages 16 and 17 to pre-register to vote, but not vote before turning 18.

This is not the first time Missouri’s secretary of state has been challenged in court over ballot language. Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, had multiple summaries rewritten by courts, and in 2017, a judge wrote Ashcroft’s summary of a right-to-work referendum — though an appeals court reversed the decision.

Petitioners have until May 3, 2020, to deliver signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office. Proposed constitutional changes must be signed by 8 percent of legal voters in any six of the eight congressional districts, which amounts to a minimum of 160,199 signatures. Proposed statutory changes must be signed by five percent of legal voters in any six of the eight congressional districts, which amounts to a minimum of 100,126 signatures.

This article is part of a periodic update on the initiative petition process. Other stories in the series can be found here.