Missouri House passes GOP plan to make it harder for voters to change state constitution

The Republican-controlled Missouri House on Tuesday passed legislation that would make it harder for Missouri voters to approve amendments to the state constitution.

The constitutional amendment, which passed by a vote of 107-55, would increase the number of votes required for a constitutional amendment to pass on the ballot — from more than 50% to at least 57%. Under the plan, several amendments recently passed by voters, including last year’s measure to legalize recreational marijuana, which received 53% support statewide, would have failed.

It comes as abortion rights groups are pushing to restore abortion access at the ballot box after the procedure was almost entirely banned in Missouri last year.

“I just hope the constitution is something sacred,” said state Rep. Mike Henderson, a Bonne Terre Republican who sponsored the legislation. “Missouri’s right now is an ever-growing document.”

The proposal, which was the result of negotiations between the two chambers of the General Assembly, now heads to the Senate with four days left in the legislative session. If passed by both chambers, it would have to be approved by voters in the November 2024 election unless Missouri Gov. Mike Parson calls an earlier special election.

Under the new plan, both chambers of the General Assembly, which have strong GOP supermajorities, would also need 57% of the vote to place an amendment on the ballot. Lawmakers would be barred from changing voter-approved laws for at least three years unless they get 57% approval from both chambers.

The proposal is part of an onslaught of GOP-led bills filed this year that would raise the threshold for voters to pass citizen-led ballot measures, called initiative petitions. It comes after Missouri voters approved several liberal-leaning policies through changes to the constitution — many of which would not have passed under the proposed legislation.

Ballot initiatives since 2018 have led Missouri voters to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, overturn a right-to-work law — which would have prevented unions from requiring employees to pay union dues — and expand eligibility for Medicaid.

“I think this is very anti-voter,” state Rep. Robert Sauls, an Independence Democrat, said Tuesday. “I don’t think this is what the people want.”

The new version of the legislation strips a first-in-the-nation provision passed by the Senate last month that would have required a majority of the state’s eight congressional districts to amend the constitution.

Legal experts and some lawmakers had argued that the congressional district requirement would have violated the U.S. Constitution and given rural residents more power. Henderson said Tuesday that negotiators agreed to strip the provision after meeting with “a number of attorneys” about whether it was constitutional.

Republicans have made whittling away at the initiative petition process a major priority this year, arguing that the Missouri Constitution has been too easy to change. Some have compared the document to a thick book, inundated with policies that belong in state law, not the constitution.

State Rep. Chad Perkins, a Bowling Green Republican, pushed back on arguments that the plan would restrict people’s voting power. He touted the provisions that place voting limits on the legislature.

“The constitution, when done well, limits the authority of the government and that’s what this does,” he said Tuesday.

While Republicans say it’s been too easy to change the state constitution, data provided to The Star earlier this year shows that voters have approved only 40.6% of the 69 citizen-driven initiative petitions placed on the ballot between 1910 and 2022.

A coalition of Missouri conservatives have also pushed back against the proposal, saying it infringes on voters’ freedom to place checks on the legislature.

“Republicans in the Senate should stand up for conservative values and filibuster the motion,” said Carl Bearden, a Republican who served as speaker pro tem in the Missouri House from 2005 to 2007. Bearden called on lawmakers to “block this government power grab now and forever.”

Defenders of the current ballot measure process have framed the legislation as an attack on democracy. They say it takes away voters’ ability to directly participate in the democratic process.

House Democrats also criticized the deceptive ballot language that would be placed in front of voters, saying that Republicans were using confusing “ballot candy” to get voters to agree to take away their voting power.

The proposed ballot initiative would ask Missourians to “Allow only U.S. citizens to vote on ballot measures,” despite the fact that Missouri law already requires voters to be U.S. citizens.

“When they show up at the ballot, people are going to be misled,” state Rep. David Tyson Smith, a Columbia Democrat, said Tuesday. “There’s an old saying that if you put icing on dog poop, you don’t have a birthday cake. You just have dog poop with icing on it.”