Mississippians would be prevented from placing an initiative on the ballot to ease or erase the state’s strict anti-abortion laws under the legislation passed late Tuesday by the House Constitution Committee.
Senate Joint Resolution 533, as amended by the House Constitution Committee Tuesday, would not allow citizens to gather enough signatures to place an issue on the ballot regarding abortion.
House Constitution Chair Fred Shanks, R-Brandon, said the decision to prevent addressing abortion via voter initiative came up through consultation with other House members.
“It was decided it would be the House position,” Shanks said. He would not say which legislators were involved in the discussions, but House Speaker Philip Gunn has been a leading anti-abortion advocate during his tenure in the Legislature.
“Regardless of what the issue is, I think people should have the right to have it considered through the initiative process,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens. “It is almost like a dictatorship telling the people they have the right to speak except on this issue or that issue.
“Regardless of what the issue is, I think the people should have the right to vote.’
Legislation is being considered this session to restore the initiative process that was deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in a 2021 ruling.
Besides fixing the concerns that led to the Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional, the proposal changes the old initiative process by allowing voters to bypass the Legislature to add or amend general law instead of changing the Constitution.
Both the House and Senate proposals increase the number signatures of registered voters needed to place an issue on the ballot from about 106,000 under the old system to about 240,000.
Disagreement over the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot resulted in efforts to revive the initiative process dying during the 2022 session. While the bill Shanks passed has the same signatory requirements as the Senate bill, Shanks said he still supports the lower threshold, but feared the Senate might kill the proposal at the lower signature requirement. He said he still hopes to get a lower threshold during negotiations on the issue with Senate leaders later in the session.
“We will have to work that (required number of signatures) out in conference,” Shanks said. Conference committees are formed to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation.
The issue banning abortion initiatives had not been publicly discussed this session until Tuesday’s Constitution Committee meeting. But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past summer there is no national right to an abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade, laws banning most abortions in the state went into effect.
Since then, the issue of abortion has been on the ballot in six states. In each of those elections, the citizens voted in favor of maintaining or expanding abortion rights.
Gunn and other politicians always have maintained Mississippi is an ardent anti-abortion state. But in 2011, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly rejected a so-called personhood amendment that would have defined life as beginning at conception.
The Supreme Court ruled Mississippi’s initiative invalid in 2021 because it required signatures of registered voters to be gathered equally from five congressional districts as they existed in 1990. In 2000, the state lost a congressional district based on the results of the U.S. Census. The new proposal just requires the signatures to be gathered equally from the congressional districts regardless of how many there are.