Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft says the state needs a better way to handle initiative petitions and to advertise official ballot issues.
On Friday, he told members of the Missouri Bar that those were two of the ideas he says lawmakers should look at during the 2019 legislative session.
He also said he opposes the idea of "early voting" that's practiced in many other states, and lawmakers should consider better ways to judge our judges.
Ashcroft told the Missouri Bar's annual Fall Meeting luncheon that lawmakers should look at possible changes to the initiative petition process.
"I think we need to make sure that, when we amend our Constitution, it isn't done by 15 percent of the voting public," he said, adding: "It is not uncommon in our August elections to have a turnout of 30 percent or less.
"If we have a Constitution that is changing every two years, and 15 percent of the voting public is amending that Constitution — are we really making sure that we protect the minority from the potential tyranny of the majority in the future?"
He agreed the ballot language sometimes can be confusing — and noted the Legislature also is allowed to draft that language.
He said the secretary of state's office can face problems trying to explain a proposal to voters — when he's allowed only 100 words to do it.
"One of the ballot issues that was on the ballot a week ago was 47 pages long," Ashcroft noted. "I did the best job I could, with 100 words to explain 47 pages of legalese.
"It's really not possible, though," even though his staff of 12-15 people — including attorneys and non-attorneys — works hard to find words that will explain a ballot issue no matter how complex.
Sometimes, he said, his staff will decide a proposal includes a number of issues that should be highlighted, but "we've got room, maybe, for five of them because we've got 100 words," Ashcroft explained. "It's an imperfect process.
"But I get sued on just about every one of them, and lately, both sides have been unhappy with me — so maybe I am cutting it down the middle, which is what I'm trying to do."
In his speech and in a later interview with the News Tribune, Ashcroft stressed he's not against the people using the initiative petition process to get laws or the Constitution changed.
"I just think we need to re-enforce the understanding that the normal course for amending our Constitution or changing our statutes is to go through the Legislature," he told the News Tribune. "We are a republic.
"We elect state senators and representatives to represent us, and we need to make sure that the normal process is to go through the Legislature, (where) you have debate (and) at least the opportunity for logical arguments."
Ashcroft said he's not trying to change the number of signatures required to submit a ballot proposal.
Advertising the ballot
However, he told the Bar members, it may be time to change how information about ballots is publicized.
Current law requires publication of ballot details in local newspapers throughout the state — including the full wording of proposed amendments or state law changes, where the ballot only shows the legal summary of that proposal.
"We spent $5.7 million of your dollars printing the entire verbiage of every statewide issue in newspapers of every county across the state," he reported. "I would love to have your help in finding a way to make sure that what we're doing is the right use of the taxpayers' dollars.
"We need to make sure that people at least have the opportunity to be aware of what they're going to be voting on — but I also believe we need to be good stewards of the people's money."
In a brief question-and-answer session, Ashcroft said he doesn't favor early voting in Missouri — and pointed to some of the post-election issues in Florida, Georgia and Arizona that have been in the news since last week's mid-term elections.
"If you look at a lot of their problem, (it was) because of how they did absentee ballots and early voting," he explained. "Originally, when early voting was really proposed, the idea was that voter participation was declining, and this was a means of increasing voter participation.
"If you look over the last 60 years at voter participation, it is really depressing.
"But the latest studies don't show that participation actually increases — it (just) shifts when people vote."
Ashcroft added: "I am a big believer in the people of this state coming together on one day and saying, 'This is what we believe.'"
He said the costs of early voting also would be "substantial."
At the end of his formal address, the secretary of state said: "I think it is incumbent upon every organization that has authority and power, to police itself — and I am concerned that our Missouri courts have not always been good at policing themselves."
He added: "I also think it's unfair that to put the requirement to police the courts on attorneys.
"Because we should not expect attorneys to be the ones who have to stand up and say things when judges act inappropriately — when they're going to be back in front of that judge, for their livelihood, on a regular basis."
In an interview, Ashcroft said: "I would really like to throw that out, to try to get people thinking about it because I think it is something that you don't just want one individual saying, 'This is what we need to do.'
"I think you want to make sure you have people from a broad spectrum, looking at it from all sorts of different angles, because you then minimize unintended consequences."
Missouri's Constitution already creates a process for disciplining or removing judges.
The Commission on Retirement, Removal, and Discipline of Judges is comprised of two citizens who are not members of the Bar, who are appointed by the governor; two lawyers appointed by the Missouri Bar's Board of Governors; one appeals court judge selected by all of the court's judges; and one circuit court judge selected by a majority of the state's circuit judges.
The Constitution says the commission "shall receive and investigate all complaints concerning misconduct of all judges, members of the judicial commissions, and of this commission."
And, if at least four members of the commission agree, the Constitution says the Supreme Court "shall remove, suspend, discipline or reprimand any judge of any court or any member of any judicial commission or of this commission, for the commission of a crime, or for misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency or any offense involving moral turpitude, or oppression in office."
Ashcroft didn't say if that commission's work wasn't enough.
"I just think that it is (a matter) worth revisiting," he said.
He told the Bar audience: "I am concerned that, if we do not act in such a way so that people have confidence in the court system, and that the courts will police themselves, we are headed in a very dark direction."