Our Opinion: Kander takes initiative on initiatives

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office has been abuzz with activity in the two weeks since Jason Kander took his oath of office.

Among a flurry of news releases, the most recent announced a new policy for initiative petition efforts submitted to his office.

Kander said last week the submissions will be posted online for a five-day public comment period before his office drafts summary language for the measures. Comments will be accepted by phone, mail or e-mail.

The secretary of state’s summary is the language potential signers see at the top of petition pages and also the language printed on the election ballot.

Kander’s stated goal is transparency. “When I traveled around the state,” he said, “a lot of people asked me questions about this process and were concerned that it seemed to them to be done in secret, behind closed doors. So I decided to make the process more transparent and allow for public input.”

We support the policy change on the basis of transparency alone, but we also see another possible benefit.

The initiative petition process gradually has become misused, if not abused.

It was designed as a grass-roots mechanism for people to petition their government if and when their elected representatives failed or refused to act.

In recent years, it has become a tool used by interest groups – sometimes back by wealthy individual and sometimes from out of state – to pursue an agenda through misleading campaigns and paid petition gatherers.

In addition, initiative efforts routinely are challenged in the courts, sometimes on the basis of improper or inadequate summaries.

Will Kander’s new policy help curb abuse?

Perhaps. Public comment from both proponents and opponents might identify and clarify the issue and points of contention.

Identification and clarification could help the secretary’s office draft a summary capable of withstanding a court challenge. It also might boost public understanding of the issue before people are asked to sign petitions.

Whether the policy change helps remains to be seen. But greater transparency never hurts.

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