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As Missouri Abortion Rights Supporters Look to Initiative Petitions, Legislators Try to Limit Power

Numerous bills regarding initiative petitions have been filed for 2023, as Republican lawmakers look to reshape how the process is used for policymaking in Missouri.

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Above image credit: legislation designed to limit the initiative petition process. (Wickimedia)

Elected officials rushed to make Missouri the first state to ban abortion outright on the same day in June that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision.

But an August poll from St. Louis University found that 48% of Missouri voters would support a reversal of the ban, and an additional 13% of voters were undecided. That dynamic has abortion rights supporters in Missouri and elsewhere eyeing the possibility of placing potential initiative petitions on a 2024 statewide ballot to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.

It also has lent urgency to longstanding efforts by conservative lawmakers to make it harder for citizens to enact laws and amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process.

Bills that GOP lawmakers have already prefiled for the 2023 session include increasing the number of signatures needed to qualify a measure for the ballot and raising the percentage of votes required for passage. 

The proposed changes aren’t exclusive to Missouri. Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, said similar propositions are popping up across Republican-led states. 

“Legislatures that are overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans are trying to push through some changes that would make it harder to both get things onto the ballot, and then once they’re on the ballot, to get them adopted,” Squire told The Beacon. 

Those changes would likely have the effect of giving special interest groups with deep pockets more power in the process, Squire said. 

“If we have an abortion measure on the ballot in 2024, there will be a lot of money that pours in probably on both sides for that,” he said. 


How Missouri Ballot Initiative Process Works


Here is some of the proposed legislation filed so far by Republicans seeking to rein in Missouri’s initiative petition capacity. Because the changes would require amending the state constitution, most of the measures are joint resolutions that must be passed first by the legislature and then by Missouri’s voters.

Require More Signatures to Qualify for the Ballot

In the House, Rep. Hardy Billington, R-Poplar Bluff, introduced a joint resolution to increase the required signature threshold for measures to qualify for the ballot. 

Under his proposed amendment, citizen petitions to amend the constitution would need to be signed by 15% of the registered voters in each of the state’s congressional districts. Currently, petitions need to be signed by 8% of voters in two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts. 

Statutory petitions, which would change state law but not the constitution, would require signatures from 5% of voters in two-thirds of Missouri’s congressional districts, based on Billington’s proposal. 

Rep. Bill Falkner,  R-St. Joseph, introduced a joint resolution to increase the amount of signatures needed from 8% of voters in two-thirds of the congressional districts to 10% of voters in each congressional district. 

Raise the Percentage of Votes Needed to Pass an Initiative Petition

The incoming Senate president pro tem, Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, introduced a joint resolution to increase the amount of votes needed for an initiative petition to become a constitutional amendment. 

Under his proposal, initiative petitions would need 60% approval from voters, as opposed to a 50% simple majority, which is the current threshold for passage. 

Initiatives proposing statutory change, not constitutional change, would still require 50% approval from votes cast in that election. 

An even more consequential resolution, introduced by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, would require that ballot measures submitted through initiative petitions get majority support from the total number of registered voters in Missouri, not just majority support from voters who participate in that particular election. That means measures would likely need very high voter turnout to have a chance at passing. 

Koenig’s resolution clarifies that only registered voters who are U.S. citizens would be allowed to vote on initiative petitions and would also call for all approved initiative petitions to take effect 30 days after the election. 

For initiative petitions proposing statutory changes, those changes would go into effect immediately, according to Koenig’s legislation. 

Who Can Collect Signatures?

In some states, like California and Oregon, entire industries have sprung up around signature gathering for initiative petitions, said Squire, the MU professor. 

To slow down that trend in Missouri, some lawmakers are filing bills to limit who can collect signatures. 

In the Senate, Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, introduced a bill that would only allow registered Missouri voters to collect signatures. Currently, signature-gatherers are required to be registered with the secretary of state’s office, but do not have to be registered Missouri voters. 

The Weight of Public Opinion

Crawford introduced another joint resolution seeking to add a public comment period for circulating initiative petitions across the state. 

Under her proposal, voters in each congressional district would have the opportunity to review and comment on initiative petitions in a process administered by the secretary of state in a public forum. This would happen anytime from the date the petition was filed to at least 15 days before the election.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, introduced a bill to eliminate a public hearing. Currently, once an initiative petition is certified by the secretary of state’s office to appear on the ballot, the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Research must hold a public hearing to take comments on the proposed amendment. Hough’s bill would make that step unnecessary.

Guarding the Voters’ Will

In recent years, lawmakers have altered or jettisoned laws and constitutional changes approved by voters.

In 2010, Missourians approved a ballot measure to enact tighter restrictions on puppy mills. In the spring session following that vote, the measure was repealed and replaced. A similar reversal came after Missourians passed Clean Missouri, an ethics ballot measure, which was later repealed by voters after massive spending to support the reversal.

To guard against those kinds of changes, Rep. Joe Adams, D-St. Louis County, has introduced a bill to protect changes that become state policy from initiative petitions. Under Adams’ bill, no measure approved by voters can be amended or repealed by the General Assembly.

Voter-led Changes on the State’s Dime

Some initiative petitions include changes to state funds or budgeting. Some lawmakers are including additional guidelines for initiative petitions that deal with the state’s dollars. 

One of Crawford’s proposals would require 60% voter approval for any petitions that would create a monetary obligation of $10 million or more within the first five years of its passage.

Crawford’s bill states that all other initiative petitions would require 50% approval and go into effect 30 days after the election is certified.

Meg Cunningham is the Missouri Statehouse reporter for The Kansas City Beacon, where this story first appearedThe Beacon is a member of the KC Media Collective.

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