The state Senate on Thursday kept alive a measure that would reinstate Mississippi voters’ right to bypass the Legislature and put issues on a statewide ballot.
Lawmakers stripped out an earlier provision that would have given the Legislature power to veto or amend citizens’ initiatives before they go before voters. They also removed red tape that would have, among other things, required the daunting task for initiative sponsors to get 10 signatures each from the state’s more than 300 municipalities.
READ MORE: Mississippi Supreme Court strikes down ballot initiative process
But the proposal, as it stands now, would make getting an initiative on a ballot a more difficult task, requiring about 240,000 voter signatures to get something on the ballot, compared to about 107,000 under the state’s previous initiative process. Last year attempts to reinstate voters’ initiative rights died when the House would not agree to the Senate’s demands for more signatures.
“If I had my way, I’d have a higher percentage (of signatures required),” Senate Accountability Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, told his colleagues Thursday.
Polk was tasked by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann with handling ballot initiative legislation this year and last, but has not appeared very enthusiastic about giving voters back the right to sidestep the Legislature in making policy. Polk has described the ballot initiative process as “dangerous.” On Thursday during Senate debate he decried the “debacle” that nearly happened when voters enshrined a medical marijuana program into the state constitution, only to have the state’s high court strike it down.
In 2021, the state Supreme Court in a ruling on litigation against citizen-led creation of a medical marijuana program, ruled Mississippi’s ballot initiative, and the program, invalid. Lawmakers last year created a medical marijuana program. But despite public outcry and legislative leaders promising to reinstate voter ballot initiative rights, it failed in the final days of the legislative session last year.
The current Senate Bill 2638 and accompanying Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 — which would have to be approved by voters in November if it’s passed by lawmakers — would give Mississippi voters the right to change or create state law, not amend the constitution as the previous ballot initiative allowed.
READ MORE: Senators keep watered-down ballot initiative bill alive, vow to improve it
The current version also would reinstate the Legislature’s right to offer alternative measures to anything citizens put on a ballot. Lawmakers in the past have used this to try to confuse the issue and defeat citizen initiatives, including with the medical marijuana Initiative 65.
Supporters of voter initiative rights have questioned the veracity of legislative efforts to reinstate them.
“There are legislators in here who say they are for the ballot initiative who are for it,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. “And there are legislators in here who say they are for the ballot initiative who are not really for it. We’re about to find out soon where people really are, when we see if we get a legitimate, workable ballot initiative process … We need to be straight with people that we mean it.”
Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, offered an amendment that would have stripped the Legislature’s power to offer alternative initiatives. The amendment failed.
“We ought to be able to trust people, your constituents, have the ability to think for themselves and that they have a brain,” Blackmon said.
Polk warned that out-of-state interests can spend large amounts of money and harness social media campaigns to co-opt the ballot initiative process and force policy that is not truly grassroots.
Rep. Angela Hill asked Blackmon, “Was our country founded as a constitutional republic or a direct democracy?” making the point that the U.S. and Mississippi’s government is based on representation by elected leaders, not mob rule or en masse voting on most policy issues.
Blount pointed out that Mississippi voters had initiative rights for 30 years before the Supreme Court invalidated it, and only seven initiatives were brought to ballot, and only three passed.
“The fear is that this process is going to be abused,” Blount said. “… That fear is misplaced.”
Senate Concurrent Resolution 533 passed the Senate on Thursday, the deadline for floor action to keep it alive, 43-4. Polk said he expects there will be much more work on the issue between House and Senate before a final version is struck.
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