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Feb. 21, 2024 |  By: Rudi Keller - Missouri Independent

Democrat filibuster forces removal of ‘ballot candy’ from Senate initiative petition bill

senator coleman of missouri

By Rudi Keller - Missouri Independent

A Democratic filibuster that stretched more than 20 hours ended Tuesday when Senate Republicans stripped provisions critics derided as “ballot candy” from a proposal to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments proposed by initiative petitions.

By an 18-12 vote, with nine Republicans joining nine Democrats in the majority, language that stated non-citizens could not vote on constitutional amendments was removed, as were sections barring foreign governments and political parties from taking sides in Missouri ballot measures.

The Senate then, by a voice vote, gave first-round approval to the bill that would require both a statewide majority and a majority vote in five of the state’s eight congressional districts to pass future constitutional amendments proposed by initiative petitions or a state constitutional convention.

The proposal would alter the way Missourians have approved constitutional changes since the first statewide vote on a constitution in 1846.

A final Senate vote is needed to send the measure to the Missouri House.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Arnold, said the bill could not have advanced past Democratic resistance unless the provisions were removed. She said she hopes they are restored during debate in the Missouri House.

“It is really important to not get bogged down in the next step, but continuing to make forward momentum,” Coleman said in an interview with The Independent. “It is only February. We have a lot of time left. And so I feel really confident that we’re going to be able to get a strong initial initiative petition reform language onto the ballot for voters.”

Tuesday’s votes gave Democrats a tactical victory. Throughout their filibuster, they demanded removal of the provisions unrelated to changing the majority for passage.

“All we’re asking for is a fair fight,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo of Independence said. “And they know if it’s a fair fight they lose, which is why they have to pump it full of ballot candy and mislead voters.”

Meanwhile, the House spent much of Tuesday morning debating legislation that would make changes to the signature gathering process for initiative petition campaigns.

Among numerous provisions, the bill would require signatures be recorded using black or dark ink and that signature gatherers be citizens of the United States, residents of Missouri or physically present in Missouri for at least 30 consecutive days prior to the collection of signatures. It also prohibits compensation for signature gatherers based on the number of signatures collected. 

Its most sweeping provision grants new authority to the secretary of state and attorney general to review initiative and referendum petitions for compliance with the Missouri Constitution.

“It keeps fraud out of the initiative petition process,” said state Rep. Michael Haffner, the bill’s sponsor, “and it keeps out-of-state actors from influencing the system.”

The effort to make it harder to get on the ballot and harder to pass a constitutional amendment has been a GOP priority for several years. They argue that many recent initiatives have been funded by out-of-state interest groups.

Advocacy groups seeking to change state law are seeking to put their proposals into the state constitution more often out of fear lawmakers will change anything written into state statutes. It takes more signatures to get on the ballot with a constitutional amendment, but it requires a second statewide vote to undo any measure that does pass.

In the past two election cycles, voters have expanded Medicaid coverage and legalized recreational marijuana, circumventing the GOP majority that opposed both. The push to raise the threshold on amendments proposed by initiative has taken on a new urgency for Republicans as abortion-rights supporters move ahead with a signature campaign to make this year’s ballot.

The results on abortion amendments in other states has Missouri abortion foes anxious about whether they can defend the state’s almost total ban in a statewide election. 

Voters in Ohio last year rejected an effort to increase the majority needed to pass constitutional amendments before voting 57% in favor of abortion rights. And in 2022, Kansas voters defeated an attempt to restrict abortion rights by a landslide vote.

Protecting the abortion-rights initiative is one of the main reasons Democrats filibustered Coleman’s bill. Late Monday night, in a discussion between Democratic Sens. Barbara Washington of Kansas City and Tracy McCreery of Olivette, Washington said Missouri case law shows that lawmakers cannot preempt an initiative through legislation.

“Then if the reason that Republicans are pushing forward with this is because they don’t want to give the voters a chance to end the ban on abortion, then this is all for nothing,” McCreery said.

The vote Tuesday was a milestone moment for the Senate. It was the first time this year that any proposal changing state law got to a vote of the full body. And it was the first time in three years of trying that changes to the standard for passing constitutional amendments made it to a vote in the chamber.

Action in the chamber has been slowed by Republican factional fighting over when and in what form to put the initiative petition changes on the floor for debate. The newly formed Freedom Caucus delayed routine work for much of January and early February, irritating Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden to the point he stripped four caucus members of their committee chairmanships.

During debate on removing the provisions on non-citizen voting and foreign influence on ballot campaigns, Sen. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring, a member of the Freedom Caucus, criticized GOP leadership for giving in to Democratic demands.

Eigel wanted to invoke a little-used rule called the previous question motion to cut off debate and force a vote. Sen. Mike Cieripiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican, wanted to take out the language that triggered the filibuster and move on. 

Eigel and Cierpiot have one of the most antagonistic relationships in the Senate.

“Would you sign a (previous question motion) right now?” Eigel asked Cierpiot.

“Against your stuff, absolutely,” he said, adding he would not do so to stop the Democratic filibuster.

Voting by non-citizens is a states’ rights issue. Federal law allows non-citizen participation in elections if federal elections are on completely separate ballots only given to citizens. The Missouri constitution has banned non-citizen voting on all questions since 1924.

In the interview with The Independent, Coleman said a majority of the GOP caucus decided Tuesday was not the day to use the previous question, although she was willing. That day could come, she said, when the House returns the bill with changes.

“A bill that comes over from the House is one vote away from being able to send it to the ballot,” she said. “That’s a much easier procedural vote to be able to continue the process than when you’re at an impasse and you still have so very many steps in the legislative process.”