Report calls for reform of direct ballot process

Thursday, August 15, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The potential for abuse of the voter initiative process outweighs its benefits and should be reformed in the 24 states, including Missouri, that allow citizens to bypass the legislature and put measures directly on the statewide ballot, a recently released report concludes.

The study, conducted by the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures based in Denver, Colo., further recommends that states without voter initiative should not adopt it.

"The initiative has evolved from its early days as a grassroots tool to enhance representative democracy into a tool that is too often exploited by special interests," the report said. "The initiative lacks critical elements of the legislative process and can have both intended and unintended effects on the ability of the representative democratic process to comprehensively develop policies and priorities." The report acknowledges that initiatives can further issues that might face insurmountable resistance from lawmakers. However, the result is often severely flawed laws that haven't undergone the close scrutiny of the normal legislative process.

It also noted a nationwide increase in the number of initiatives. In the 1970s, there were 183 initiative referendums. In the 1990s, there were 383 such votes.

Among the suggested changes that would be applicable in Missouri would be to make such measures non-binding, requiring later legislative action.

Spence Jackson, a spokesman for Secretary of State Matt Blunt, said Blunt believes the initiative process works well in Missouri but that the idea of reform merits study. As the state's top election official, Blunt is responsible for reviewing prospective initiative proposals.

"Our Constitution sets pretty strict standards that must be met to put a measure on the ballot," Jackson said. "He is satisfied with the language we have in the Constitution right now, but is certainly open to discussion on possible changes." In the last week, Blunt rejected two initiative proposals supporters had hoped would go on the Nov. 5 ballot.

One called for increasing the tax on a pack cigarettes by 55 cents.

While supporters collected more than enough signatures from registered voters than the total number needed, they failed to meet the constitutional requirement that a certain number of those signatures come from voters in at least six of the state's nine congressional districts.

The second proposal sought collective bargaining rights for firefighters and ambulance personnel. Blunt said forged signatures invalidated by election authorities were partially to blame for the petition failing to receive the minimum number in one congressional district.

The right to initiative and referendum has been part of the Missouri Constitution since 1875.

Dr. Rick Althaus, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, noted that many of the general reforms suggested in the report are already in place in Missouri. Those include requiring more signatures for a constitutional amendment than for a statutory change, limiting proposals to a single subject and allowing initiative referendums only during general elections. Referendums on proposals passed by the General Assembly can go on the ballot in any election.

However, Althaus said initiatives and the way they bypass the legislature can have a major impact on policy, giving significant power to the majority.

"The framers thought there was such a thing as too much democracy," Althaus said. "They thought of it as mob rule." Since 1990, Missouri voters have decided 13 measures placed on the ballot via initiative, approving eight. Most fit the profile of issues on which the General Assembly was unable or unwilling to act.

Successful efforts included imposing legislative term limits, banning cock fighting, setting campaign donation limits, legalizing riverboat casinos and a follow up measure authorizing "boats in moats" gambling facilities.

Mandating a state minimum wage, limiting new billboard construction and providing public financing for political campaigns were among the rejected proposals.

Often cited as the prime example of a poorly drafted initiative is the Hancock Amendment, which voters added to the Constitution in 1980. While credited with imposing limits on the growth of state revenue, the amendment's complex and confusing language has spawned numerous lawsuits, leaving the Missouri Supreme Court to sort out what the amendment actually does.

Whereas the normal legislative process allow numerous avenues for change and improvement before final passage, initiatives often don't undergo such close examination. Althaus said that is a valid criticism, but noted that lawmakers frequently pass bills, especially during the final days of a legislative session, without always knowing the content therein.

"You can get bad policy in the legislature too," Althaus said.

The report suggests that state election officials provide more voter education on questions put on the ballot by initiative.

As to the report's claim that special interest groups abuse the initiative process, Althaus noted that such groups already wield significant influence in the legislature.

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