Long line and long waiting for voters at The Mark Apartments in Ridgeland. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi House, with most Democrats voting present, approved by a 75-9 margin on Wednesday a proposal to restore the ballot initiative process after it was struck down in 2021 by the state Supreme Court.

The measure required a two-thirds majority to pass.

Most Democrats did not want to go on record as defeating the legislation to restore the initiative, but at the same time did not want to vote for the latest proposal that they say would provide citizens fewer options to place issues on the ballot than the previous process that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

“You are not voting on an initiative process that the public wants. You are voting on a process a handful of legislative leaders want,” said Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens.

Thirty-four of the 122 members, all Democrats, voted present. If they all had voted no, they could have killed the legislation. They voted present because they wanted to keep the proposal alive even if it contains provisions they oppose. Based on Wednesday’s vote, the proposal will remain alive. House and Senate leaders now will try to hammer out the differences between what the two chambers passed.

Both the House and Senate proposals, in their current form, are much more cumbersome and more restrictive than the initiative process that was struck down in 2021 by the Supreme Court.

Under both proposals, the Legislature by a simple majority vote can change or repeal the initiative approved by the electorate. And the House proposal would prevent the issue of abortion from being placed on the ballot by citizens.

Rep. Daryl Porter, D-Summit, told Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who was explaining the bill to members, that the proposal “was stifling” the rights of the citizens.

Bain said he did not believe that is the case. He said he is certain that Mississippians are anti-abortion so he saw no need to allow them to vote on the issue.

“I feel that way in my heart,” Bain said. Porter said there would be no way to verify Bain’s beliefs under the initiative process offered by the leadership.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, the House minority leader, said the legislation offered by the leadership is not a true initiative proposal.

“It gives the Legislature the power to change whatever the people want to do,” he said.

Rep. Hester Jackson McCray, D-Horn Lake, said the previous process that was overturned by the Supreme Court already was difficult enough for the citizens to use. She pointed out only three initiatives had been approved by the voters since it was enacted in 1992.

“The initiative process was not easy anyway. Now we as legislators are making it harder for our citizens,” said Hester McCray, who was the sponsor of an initiative to allow early voting when the Supreme Court struck down the process.

The court nullified the ballot initiative process in 2021 because it required the signatures to be gathered equally from the five congressional districts as they existed in 1990. The state lost a congressional district in 2000, making the process inoperable, the court ruled.

“The overall issue here is giving people a voice, but we want to maintain the sanctity and integrity of this body that is sent down here to make laws,” Bain said. He added it should be difficult to pass laws.

The House did quash one proposal of the House leadership on the floor Wednesday: to more than double the number of signatures needed to place an issue on the ballot. Under the proposal of House and Senate leaders, the signatures of at least 240,000 registered voters would be needed to place an issue on the ballot.

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, successfully added an amendment to reduce the number of signatures to the same as in the process that was overturned by the Supreme Court. That process required about 110,000 or 12% of the total vote in the last gubernatorial election.

Bomgar said, “There is no possible way to gather that many signatures.”

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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.