Thursday, February 22, 2024

Missouri Senate passes bill making it harder for voters to amend the constitution

By Rudi Keller

Legislation to add a new barrier to amending the Missouri Constitution by initiative petition passed the state Senate Thursday on a party line vote.

With 22 Republicans in favor and nine Democrats opposed, the Senate sent the House a proposal that would require a statewide majority and a majority vote in five of the state’s eight congressional districts to pass a constitutional amendment resulting from an initiative petition or a state convention.

Called a concurrent majority, analysis by The Independent found that as few as 23% of voters – a majority in the four districts with the lowest number of voters in 2020 and 2022 – could defeat a statewide ballot measure. Under the legislation, the concurrent majority requirement would not apply to proposals originating in the General Assembly.

The measure would amend the state constitution if approved in the House and by a simple majority of voters later this year.

The bill came to a vote only after Democrats used a 21-hour filibuster to force Republicans to strip out language barring non-citizens from voting on amendments to the constitution and other items referred to as “ballot candy.”

“We wanted a fair fight,” said Sen. Doug Beck of Affton, the assistant Democratic floor leader, at a news conference after Thursday’s vote. “And because we trust the voters we stood strong until we got it.”

Ballot candy sugarcoats policy ideas that voters would reject as a standalone measure, Beck said.

“Their idea, that they’re putting forward to voters, they know will lose, so they have to entice them by trying to confuse them,” Beck said.

Before the vote, members of the Senate Freedom Caucus – a minority faction of Republicans who have been warring with leadership – denounced the changes as a surrender by the majority leadership to the Democratic minority.

“The actions that were taken on this floor by a certain segment were reprehensible,” said Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican from Harrisonville.

The vote came just a few hours after the House voted on changes to the way initiative petition campaigns are conducted. Some of the major changes would require signature gatherers to be U.S. citizens and residents of Missouri for at least 30 days before circulating petitions. Another change would bar campaigns from paying circulators on a per-signature basis.

The bill would increase the power of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General to reject petitions and invalidate any signatures gathered if the ballot language is changed by a court action.

The bill passed on a 104-41 party line vote. State Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, a Hallsville Republican, said it would help prevent fraud. She claimed voter rolls are not being maintained.

“Everybody who knows me knows I see dead people,” Reisch said. “And I see dead people on voter rolls. It is rife with fraud.”

Democrats denounced the bill as a measure intended to suppress voter initiatives and pander to GOP voters.

“I’m trying to have an honest debate here, not a show for our next election,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis.

In the Senate, the floor time before the vote was consumed mainly by members of the Freedom Caucus criticizing Republican leadership for stripping the bill of the ballot candy items.

When the bill reached the floor, it had seven provisions in addition to altering the majority requirement. The first five to be jettisoned during the filibuster banned amendments proposing taxes on food or real estate, gifts to public officials from lobbyists, defunding police or opposing the use of state resources to defend the national border.

The two sections that remained – bans on non-citizen voting on constitutional amendments and foreign entities contributing to or sponsoring constitutional amendments – were removed Tuesday afternoon.

Monday is the 100th anniversary of the passage of a constitutional amendment – proposed by a state constitutional convention – that eliminated non-citizen voting in Missouri. The right had been in place since 1865 for males who had declared their intent to become citizens.

Members of the Freedom Caucus, however, said the current language in the constitution – that all citizens of the United States who are residents of Missouri have the right to vote – isn’t strong enough.

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Springs Republican running for governor, said “all” does not mean “only” and he thinks that is how the courts might interpret it.

“I don’t trust the Missouri Supreme Court to protect the citizens of this state,” he said.

After the vote on the constitutional changes, the Freedom Caucus continued to air its grievances with GOP leadership. Sen. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg, a candidate for secretary of state, sparred with Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden of Columbia, also a candidate for secretary of state, about an education bill that had been reassigned to a new committee.

Rowden removed four members of the Freedom Caucus from committee chairmanships for obstructing the Senate’s work in January.

Hoskins demanded to know why he and other Freedom Caucus members lost their seats, arguing that Democrats deserved the same treatment for their filibuster this week.

Rowden said Democrats were debating policy, not stalling the process for political ends. The faction wasn’t letting Majority Floor Leader Cindy O’Laughlin do her job, Rowden said.

“What I will not let you do is make a mockery of her in her position, the position that you individually and every member of the Freedom Caucus elected her to,” Rowden said. “That was the problem.”

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