The right for Mississippians to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the election ballot would be restored under a proposal approved Monday by the House Constitution Committee.
Mississippi has been without a ballot initiative process since May 2021, when the state Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in November 2020 and the entire ballot initiative process. The court ruled the process invalid because language in the state Constitution mandated that the required number of signatures necessary to place an issue on the ballot be gathered equally from five congressional districts. Mississippi has had only four congressional districts since losing one as a result of the 2000 Census.
While the state has lost a congressional district, various entities in state government are still configured based on the five districts, such as the board that oversees the state’s 15 community colleges. And other initiatives that remain in state law have been approved based on the five districts.
The proposal passed Monday, Constitution Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, pointed out, would require a pro rata share of signatures be gathered from whatever number of congressional districts the state has.
It would allow for citizens to amend general law, not the Constitution. The process ruled invalid last May by the Supreme Court allowed solely for the amending of the Constitution. Shanks and various other legislative leaders said they would prefer the process be used to amend general law because amending the Constitution requires the approval of voters.
But after a citizen-sponsored initiative is approved by voters under the proposal, the Legislature cannot change it for two years unless in case of an emergency, and even then it would take a two-thirds vote of each chamber to do so.
The proposal is expected to be considered in the coming two weeks by the full House. It will require a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate, and if it passes through the Legislature, Mississippi voters would have to approve it at the ballot box for it to go into effect.
Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann have expressed support for restoring the initiative process. But Hosemann has assigned the Senate bill that would restore the process to two committees, making it more difficult to pass.
Importantly, the House proposal passed out Monday does not allow for legislators to place a competing alternative to the citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot. In recent years, initiative sponsors have complained that legislators have placed alternatives to the citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot, creating a convoluted voting process that many said caused confusion at the ballot box.
Legislators placed an alternative to a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in 2020 and in 2015 had an alternative to an initiative that sought to place a greater commitment to public education in the state Constitution.
“As long as we are doing away with the legislative alternative measure, I am good with it,” Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Escatawpa, said in the House Constitution Committee hearing.
Feb. 1 is the deadline to pass bills and constitutional amendments out of committee in their originating chamber, and the Senate proposal had not been considered in either chamber as of late Monday evening. But even if the Senate legislation to restore the initiative is not passed out of the committees by Tuesday’s deadline, the issue will remain alive in the legislative process because the House proposal is alive.
The House proposal, like in the version overturned by the Supreme Court, would require signatures be gathered equaling 12% of the total in the last gubernatorial election to place an issue on the ballot. And sponsors still would have 12 months to collect the signatures.
The proposal would create a database in the Secretary of State’s office to allow citizens to check whether they are listed as signers of a petition to place an issue on the ballot. Shanks said there have been complaints by some that they were listed as signing an initiative petition when they did not.