In Mississippi legislative parlance, there are rare issues that can “take your picture off the wall” at the Capitol.
This refers to issues about which voters care so deeply that if a lawmaker doesn’t do right by them, they will oust him or her in the next election. Their photo will no longer be in the framed array of the current Legislature.
Monkeying with state retirees’ benefits, massive tax increases — there are only a few singular issues considered to have such statewide, grassroots gravitas. And in general lawmakers either treat them like a third rail on a subway, or else snap-to when it comes to a vote.
Is restoring voters’ rights to ballot initiative — sidestepping the Legislature and putting an issue directly to a statewide vote — one of those take-your-picture-down issues?
Some elected leaders and candidates believe so. And some recent public polling and social media outcry would appear to back them up. Some citizens groups have tried to organize members to call and write lawmakers about it. Should the Legislature fail again to restore this right, it will likely be a campaign issue in many statewide and legislative races this year.
A recent poll by Tulchin Research for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund reported 65% of Mississippi voters surveyed support restoring ballot initiative rights, and only 14% opposed. Support crossed party, age, race and other demographic lines.
There’s no doubt many Mississippians across the spectrum were hopping mad when the state Supreme Court stripped voters of this right in 2021. This was with a ruling on medical marijuana, an instance where voters had taken matters in hand after lawmakers dallied for years on an issue. Legislative leaders were quick back then with vows they would restore this right to voters, fix the legal glitches that prompted the high court to rule it invalid.
But given the way they’ve fiddle-faddled on restoring the right for going on two years now, it would appear some legislative leaders don’t see it as top-of-mind for voters, or don’t believe voters are paying a lot of attention to particulars.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and his Senate Accountability Chairman, John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, in particular, haven’t exactly tripped over themselves in effort to restore voter’s right to a ballot initiative.
Polk’s initial draft of a measure this session essentially would have given voters ballot initiative rights in name only. It would have given the Legislature power to veto or amend citizens’ initiatives before they go before voters, sort of missing the whole point of a ballot initiative. It also would have required, on top of forcing initiative sponsors to collect more than double the signatures previously required to get something on the ballot, that sponsors get at least 10 signatures each from the state’s more than 300 municipalities. This would be a near impossible task.
Even after making some concessions, Senate Bill 2638 would still require about 240,000 voter signatures to put something on the ballot compared to about 107,000 under the state’s previous initiative process. The Senate’s demands for requiring a large number of signatures killed reinstatement last year when the House wouldn’t go along.
Polk told his colleagues if he had his way, he’d require even more signatures for voters to bypass the Legislature, and he voted against the measure even though he was the one presenting it for a Senate vote.
Many political observers viewed Hosemann routing the measure to Polk’s committee again this year — instead of the Constitution or Elections committees — as a sign he’s not all that into restoring ballot initiative rights.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, before last week’s Senate vote, appeared to warn his colleagues about only paying lip service to restoring the initiative.
“We’re about to find out soon where people really are, when we see if we get a legitimate, workable ballot initiative process,” Blount said. “… We need to be straight with people that we mean it.”
There are reasonable arguments for and against voter ballot initiative.
Voter initiative, a creation of the early 20th Century progressive movement, gave citizens the ability to overcome the influence of big money interests on legislatures, and can still serve as a valuable backstop. There are 25 states with some form of voter initiative or referendum (the power of voters to kill a law).
But Mississippi’s form of government, just like the nation’s, is a representative democratic republic, not a direct democracy where major policy or spending is decided by a majority vote of the masses. Our founding fathers were just as afraid of the “excesses of democracy” as they were of despotic kings, and they believed democracy should be tempered through legislative representation, protective of minority rights, and checked by the judicial and executive branches.
Polk warned last week 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.
The issue, as it did last year, will likely come down to House-Senate negotiations on a final version of restoration late in the legislative session.
And given its treatment thus far on High Street, reinstatement of voters’ right to take matters into their own hands is far from certain.
But any lawmakers involved in killing or watering down such rights are taking a risk. And voters could take their pictures off the Capitol walls.