Two years after Missouri voters approved two constitutional amendments that began as initiative petitions, some state lawmakers are trying to make it harder to pass more in the future.
Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, proposed two of those measures, which were heard Wednesday by the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee. Sater proposed a constitutional amendment that would make it harder to pass constitutional amendments by petition, and a bill that would change several parts of the initiative process, including adding a $500 fee to file a petition.
Sater's proposed amendment would require all initiative petitions to get signatures from at least 15 percent of voters in each of at least two-thirds of the state's congressional districts — at least six of eight districts. Currently, petitions need signatures from only 8 percent of voters in each of those districts.
Sater's proposed amendment would also require constitutional amendments brought by initiative petition to get two-thirds of the vote to pass, instead of passing with a simple majority as they do now.
His amendment includes a carve-out to allow voters to rescind amendments passed before Dec. 3, 2020, with only a simple majority vote. Sater proposed the same amendment last year, but it did not get a vote in the Senate.
"I think if it's such a good idea, it needs to be an overwhelming vote," Sater said.
The Constitution is a "sacred document," Sater said, and it should be difficult to change since any changes will likely stay intact. He also said if something is a good enough idea to put into the constitution, it should pass by an "overwhelming vote."
Of the 20 constitutional amendments that have come before Missouri voters since 2012, 13 have passed. However, only five have passed with more than two-thirds of the vote, and only one of those — Amendment 2, which put limits on campaign contributions in 2016 — was initiated by petition.
Missouri is one of 16 states that allow voters to put proposed constitutional amendments directly on the ballot by initiative petition. Sater said he wants to keep that process intact for Missouri but wants to make it harder to change the constitution.
B.J. Tanksley, state legislative affairs director for Missouri Farm Bureau, said the MFB supports the amendment because it would require proponents to gather signatures in all parts of the state, rather than focusing on a few counties with high populations, he said.
Woody Cozad, a lobbyist representing Rex Sinquefeld-backed media company First Rule, said Sater's proposal would make it impossible for citizens to get measures on the ballot. Missouri is a populist state, and Republicans have taken control of the statehouse by being a populist party, he said.
"This is saying to the little guy, to the people, 'No, no, no we're going to make it harder for you to influence the shape and nature of your state government,' that seems to me to be going in the opposite direction."
Opponents also focused on the fact existing amendments would still be able to be repealed with a simple majority vote. Cozad said he doesn't think conservatives in the state would be happy the Hancock amendment could be repealed with a simple majority, but anything passed after this year would need two-thirds to repeal.
Sater also proposed a bill that would make several changes to the initiative petition process. It was less controversial than his proposed amendment, with most opposition coming over a proposed $500 fee to file a petition sample sheet with the Secretary of State's Office. The fee would be refunded if the proposal makes it onto the ballot.
The sample sheet is the initial proposed petition the group sends to the secretary of state, who reviews it along with the state attorney general and auditor to see that it meets legal requirements. Legislative research estimated the fee would lead to people filing 75 percent fewer petitions compared to the peak of 371 in 2018.
Ashcroft said he supports the fee because he wanted to stop people from filing petitions they have no intention of getting enough signatures to get on the ballot. Some people have filed 60 petitions over a two-year period, he said.
"It is difficult, it is costly, it is arduous to collect signatures on one initiative petition," Ashcroft said. "If you're filing 60 over multiple subject matters, you're not doing it to make a change and to collect signatures."
In 2002 and 2004 combined, a total of 30 initiative petitions were approved for circulation, and those resulted in three constitutional amendments and one proposition on those ballots. In 2012 and 2014, there were a total of 128 petitions approved for circulation, with one constitutional amendment and two propositions getting on those ballots.
The number of filings continued to spike in the last two general election years — 2016 and 2018 — when a total of 209 petitions were approved for circulation. Out of those, six constitutional amendments and four propositions made it onto the ballots. In 2018 alone, 371 petitions were filed, with 119 approved for circulation.
Opponents said the fee, which also tacks an extra $25 on for every page over 10 pages, would be a barrier for citizen-led petitions without significant financial backing, while larger, well-funded groups would still be able to get their initiatives on the ballot.
Ryan Johnson from the conservative group United for Missouri said he supported some fee, but that $500 would be prohibitive to some groups. He suggested a lower fee around $300. Monica Del Villar, of the ACLU Missouri, said the fee would discriminate against people who can't afford the $500 fee to participate in the democratic process.
The bill also:
Requires the Secretary of State to standardize signature sheets and not count signatures not in black or blue ink, which Sater and Ashcroft said would help them process petitions electronically, which is cheaper and faster.
Expands official summary statement from 100 words for initiative petitions and 50 words for a proposal from the General Assembly to 150 words each. The statements could not be phrased as a question, which Sater said can have confusing wording.
Requires the text of a petition to be in 12-point Times New Roman font, which Sater said will keep people from hiding information in smaller font that people can't read.
Invalidates all signatures on a petition if a court rules that the petition's title was false or misleading.
Doesn't allow initiative petitions to be filed until twelve weeks after a general election, which Sater said is to give the secretary of state time to validate the election results.