If the Mississippi Legislature does set the date for a special election this year to reinstate the ballot initiative process that was invalidated last month by the Supreme Court, it would cost the state or local governments and perhaps both.
In a statement to Mississippi Today, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Michael Watson, whose office oversees elections on a statewide basis, said she could not provide an estimate of the cost because it is normally borne by local governments. But in an interview last month on SuperTalk Radio, Watson estimated the cost statewide between $1 million and $1.5 million.
After contacting multiple local circuit clerks, Mississippi Today estimated an average cost of $20,000 each for the state’s 82 counties to conduct a special election for the sole purpose of voting to fix the ballot initiative process.
That would be an estimated total of $1.64 million or, if one million people voted in the special election, about $1.65 per voter.
The Mississippi Constitution and precedent confirm that a vote to reinstate the initiative would not have to be delayed until the next statewide general election in November 2022 as some have maintained. But it would be less expensive to delay the vote until the next regularly scheduled general election.
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In November 2022, Mississippi already has elections scheduled to vote on judicial candidates and on the state’s four U.S. House members. So the cost to add a constitutional amendment to reinstate the initiative process should not add much — if any — to the cost of the election.
There would be a cost, of course, to schedule an election this year just to vote on a fix for the ballot initiative.
Even after Watson’s comments on the radio two weeks ago, the Secretary of State’s office said it could not provide an estimate statewide of a special election cost.
“Since Mississippi is a bottom-up state where the counties are in charge of administering elections, county election officials would be the best resource in determining an estimated cost for a potential statewide special election,” said Kendra James, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Michael Watson. “Our office cannot speculate on an estimated cost, and we do not have the necessary information available to provide an accurate cost estimate.”
Mississippi has 82 counties. The cost would vary, of course, depending on the size of the county. Through a spokesperson, Harrison County Circuit Clerk Connie Ladner estimated the special election would cost about $50,000 in the Gulf Coast county — the second most populous in the state.
Wayne County Circuit Clerk Rose Bingham estimated the cost at $20,000 in her rural southeast Mississippi county that has 22 precincts.
Prentiss County Circuit Clerk Michael Kelley in rural northeast Mississippi and Washington County Circuit Clerk Barbara Esters-Parker in the Delta both estimated the election would cost their counties about $10,000.
“There would not be a lot of workers with just one issue on the ballot,” said Esters-Parker. The main cost for the counties would be the poll workers.
Kelly said Prentiss County has 14 precincts and it is mandated that each precinct has three poll workers, though he said having four was more realistic. The poll workers normally make $100 or $125 per day.
The proposal to fix the ballot initiative process would be an amendment to the state Constitution. Since voters approved the initiative process in 1992, there had been two methods of amending Mississippi’s 1890s Constitution.
The first is the traditional method, where legislators approve a proposal amendment by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. It then must be approved by voters in a statewide election. This is the method that would have to be used to fix the initiative process.
The governor plays no official role in amending the Constitution, though he would have to call a special session for the initiative fix to be considered this year, In 2022, legislators could take up the issue as part of the regular session.
Before the Supreme Court ruled in May that the initiative language process in the Constitution was unconstitutional, the Constitution could be amended by gathering the mandated number of signatures to place an issue on the ballot for the voters to decide.
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In a lawsuit filed to thwart the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler argued the initiative language in the Constitution should be struck down. The language requires the initiative signatures to be gathered equally from five congressional districts. The state now has four districts, losing one based on the 2000 Census.
The Supreme Court in a 6-3 landmark decision agreed with Hawkins Butler’s argument.
In 1991 the Legislature set a date for a special election on whether to keep the 1890s flag that included the Confederate battle emblem in its design or to adopt a new banner. The election, held in April, was not to amend the Constitution but to potentially change state law. The Legislature provided $724,144 in state funds to help with the cost of the election where the only item on the ballot was the flag.
And then in 2020, the Legislature appropriated $250,000 for a vote where people had the option to adopt or reject a flag design proposed by a specially appointed commission. The Legislature had earlier in the year retired the 1890s flag. The flag election was part of the regularly scheduled November election where multiple items, including the presidential candidates, were on the ballot. The $250,000 was appropriated because the flag issue required the ballots to contain color, which added to the cost of printing.
The flag election in 2020, like in 2001, was to change state law, not the Constitution.