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Senators propose upping initiative petition requirements


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Three senators presented differing proposals on how to alter the initiative petition process to up the standards for amending the Missouri Constitution.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Local Government and Elections held a public hearing for three measures that would alter the requirements for a citizen putting a proposal on the ballot, two of which take it a step further to up the vote threshold for passage.

SJR 7, SJR 1, and SJR 11 — filed by Sen. Mike Cierpiot, David Sater, and Eric Burlison, respectively — all aim to increase the standard for a change to be made to the Missouri Constitution through the initiative petition process.

A plethora of organizations and individuals stood in firm opposition to all the proposals, with one witness saying they would be raising the bar so high they are effectively eliminating the initiative petition process. Yet, organizations such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Farm Bureau with other agricultural groups were in favor of the more stringent standards.  

“In Missouri, we have a low bar to gain initiative access to the ballot,” said Cierpiot. “It is an important access but it should be a little more difficult to get there. Most states have a much more difficult process.”

“We need a thorough yet accessible process for changing our state constitution,” said Sater.

Currently, those seeking to place an initiative petition on the ballot must collect signatures from 8 percent of the legal voters in two-thirds of the Congressional districts for a constitutional amendment and 5 percent of such voters for statutory amendments. A ballot measure — whether constitutional or statutory — requires a majority of voters to be a favor to pass.

The total number of signatures required to place the petition on the ballot would remain the same while the area in which the signatures are collected would be expanded under SJR 7.

Under Cierpiot’s proposal, if approved by the voters, constitutional amendments would be required to collect signatures from 5.8 percent of the legal voters in each Congressional district and statutory changes would need signatures of 3.6 percent of such voters.

The other two bills make more drastic changes to the signature threshold and to the voter-approval threshold.

SJR 1 and SR 11 would require initiative petition constitutional amendments to receive a two-thirds majority prior to taking effect. SJR 1 would only require a simple majority to repeal a constitutional amendment.

Sater’s proposal would require petitions to gather signatures from 15 percent of legal voters in every Congressional district for a constitutional amendment to make the ballot. Burlison’s proposal maintains the 8 percent of legal voters but expands the requirement to every Congressional district for a constitutional amendment to make the ballot.

“We think it takes away the opportunity for people to actually have a voice in government,” said Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis. The organization opposes all three proposed changes.

Throughout the hearing, those opposed to the changes argued that it was already extremely hard for an initiative petition to meet all the necessary requirements. They pointed to the 2018 initiative petition cycle where only five petitions out of 371 filed made it on the ballot.

“You don’t see a lot of grassroots issues on the ballot because it is hard. Despite what we all say, it is very difficult to gather enough signatures,” said Carl Bearden, CEO of United for Missouri.

One witness pointed out that less than 100 issues have made into the ballot through the initiative petition process.

Yet, supporters of higher signature bar argued that as the standard is right now, petitioners can completely ignore portions of the state and focus just on the big cities when circulation a petition.

“We want to make sure all of the state is heard from through all steps of the process,” said BJ Tanksley, with the Missouri Farm Bureau, who testified in favor on the changes.

Mike Deering with the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association said that one of his members told him, “We don’t want a for sale sign on our constitution.”

But beyond the increased signature requirement, opponents argued that a two-thirds majority was an unreasonable threshold for passage.

One witness pointed out that the changes only apply to initiative petition constitutional amendments, so any changes sent to the voter by the General Assembly would still only need a simple majority. The example presented has the same changes with the same exact wording on a ballot could have two different vote percentages for passage.

“When you raise that bar too high that it becomes effectively the elimination of the IP process for the citizens of Missouri, you have eliminated the IP process,” said Bearden.