Missouri Senate Democrats force negotiations on plan to weaken direct democracy

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A record-breaking filibuster from Democrats finally ended on Wednesday when the Missouri Senate voted to further negotiate with the House a measure that would weaken direct democracy.

The motion, which senators approved on an 18 to 13 vote, allows lawmakers in the House and Senate to debate whether to remove from the measure deceptive language intended to entice voters.

Wednesday’s vote marked a win for Senate Democrats who had spent more than 50 hours blocking the legislation. Democrats had vowed to hold the floor until the legislative session ends on Friday unless Republicans agreed to strip the unrelated provisions called “ballot candy.”

The sponsor of the measure, Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican, made the motion and signaled that Republicans did not have enough votes to cut off the Democratic filibuster.

“This is truly the only path that keeps this issue alive,” Coleman, who is running for Missouri secretary of state, said. She later added that “these policies are too important to play political games with.”

The legislation at issue would overhaul the state’s century-old initiative petition process by raising the threshold for constitutional amendments to pass on the ballot.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have decried the entire measure as an attack on democracy. But the core of the Democratic filibuster centered on the “ballot candy” provisions attached to the legislation.

The version of the ballot question that would be placed in front of voters would ask Missourians whether they want to ban foreign interference in citizen-led ballot measures and allow only U.S. citizens to vote on constitutional amendments.

Both are already illegal.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, said Wednesday that the vote indicated that Republicans supported removing the “ballot candy” provisions.

“We will have a conference and we will take the ballot candy off and people can, at that point, know what they’re voting on instead of putting redundancies in the constitution,” Rizzo said.

Wednesday’s motion asks that the House either pass the Senate’s version of the measure without the extra provisions or go to a conference committee to debate whether to remove them.

Members of the hard-right Missouri Freedom Caucus railed against the motion, arguing that Republicans were effectively aligning themselves with Democrats.

The group’s chair, Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, directly tied the effort to raise the approval threshold to a potential vote on abortion rights in November. Brattin screamed at his fellow Republicans to vote against the motion.

“This Republican Party has no backbone to fight for what is right and for life,” he said. “They will have the blood of the innocent on their hands.”

Some Missouri Republicans have felt renewed energy to overhaul the initiative petition process as abortion rights supporters mount a campaign to overturn the state’s abortion ban.

Anti-abortion Republicans hope to place the initiative petition change on the August ballot as a way to raise the approval threshold before the potential abortion rights vote in November.

The hard-right caucus had pushed for Republicans to deploy a rarely-used maneuver that would have cut off the Democratic filibuster and forced a vote on the measure. Such a move would have been seen as a sign of disrespect and almost certainly sparked filibusters from Democrats next session.

“It seems like the majority of the majority party decided that they’d like to see a Senate function and not use what we all know would be a pretty destructive tool to shut down debate,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.