A sign notifying voters where they can cast their votes sits outside of Chastain Middle School during Mississippi's Primary Election Day, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

In 1992, legislators reluctantly yielded to growing public pressure and created an initiative process that allowed voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues directly on the ballot.

At the time, legislators were not crazy about it. They barely hid the fact they intentionally made the process cumbersome and time consuming in hopes it would seldom, if ever, be successfully used by the electorate.

In other words, legislators were not crazy about being circumvented.

But even those legislators from 1992 would have been embarrassed and too afraid to try to approve a ballot initiative proposal as cumbersome and unworkable as the one that passed out of Senate committee last week.

Under the new proposal, initiative sponsors would have to gather at least 10 signatures of registered voters from each of the more than 300 municipalities across the state. The proposal mandates at least 10 signatures from Jackson, which has a population of about 150,000, and from Satartia, with a population of 41.

Considering some of those 41 Satartia residents might be underage and some might not be registered voters, it is unclear whether 10 signatures could be legally gleaned from the Yazoo County town. Initiative supporters would also have to gather 100 signatures from each of the 82 counties — the same for Hinds County with about 222,000 residents as for Issaquena County with less than 1,300 people.

But it gets better. The proposal more than doubles from what was passed in 1992 the required number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot.

And going on to do what the 1992 legislators would have only considered in their wildest and most secretive dreams, the 2023 proposal, while poorly written, appears to:

  • Allow legislators to actually amend or change the initiative that would go on the ballot by a two-thirds vote. In other words, it would let legislators who were supposed to be circumvented by the citizens to in reality circumvent the citizens.
  • Require a two-thirds vote of the electorate opposed to a majority vote to approve an initiative.
  • Require an initiative, if any makes it through this maze, to be approved by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature before it can become law.

This proposal is more about circumventing the electorate instead of the citizens circumventing legislators.

It should be pointed out that lawmakers were not being circumvented often by voters under the old initiative process. Since 1992, a mere three initiatives have been approved by voters.

In 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the initiative approved in the 1990s. The justices said the process was unconstitutional because it mandated signatures to place issues on the ballot be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they existed in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a congressional district.

Both Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn committed in 2021 to passing legislation to fix the Supreme Court’s concerns and to restore the initiative process. In 2022, though, legislative efforts to restore the process fell apart when at the end of the session during closed door meetings. In those meetings, Senate leadership demanded the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot be more than doubled from around 100,000 registered voters to about 240,000. House leaders would not agree.

Before the 2023 session started, House Constitution Chair Rep. Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached to restore the process.

On Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast, Shanks said he was optimistic because “I have run into the lieutenant governor several times and he actually brought it up … He said, ‘Let’s work on it.'”

Hosemann assigned the initiative proposals to the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee chaired by Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg. In both the 2022 and 2023 sessions, Polk continuously played his cards close to his vest in terms of whether he would pass out of his committee an initiative proposal. The initiative proposal, such that it is, was one of the last bills passed out of Polk’s committee hours before deadline.

But initiative supporters should give Polk and Hosemann credit for at least keeping alive this session an initiative proposal that can be amended to give voters more power. The main author of the initiative proposal passed out of Polk’s committee, Sen. Tyler McCaughn, R-Newton, told initiative supporters such as Sens. David Blount, D-Jackson, and Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, he would work with them to improve the legislation through the amendment process.

Whether those amendments result in an initiative process that gives the citizens an opportunity to circumvent the legislative process — instead of one that allows legislators to circumvent the citizens — remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: the ghosts of the 1992 Legislature are watching with jealous eyes.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.