Missouri lawmakers are considering a measure strongly backed by Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft that would change requirements in the initiative petition process.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft – R (picture from Facebook)

Citizens in Missouri have the option of sending issues to a public vote if they get language approved through the secretary of state’s office and collect enough valid public signatures.

Ashcroft is concerned that a skyrocketing number of initiative petition filings over the past several election cycles is harming the integrity of the process.

In 2014, 129 petitions were filed, a number that rose to 223 in 2016, and now stands in excess of 330 for the upcoming November 2018 election.  Initiative petitions, unlike other measures before voters, place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Ashcroft’s office contends a few special interest groups have abused the system by submitting large numbers of petitions on the same subject with minor language variations.

A bill sponsored by Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, adds numerous stipulations for those filing the petitions.

One requirement calls for the font on documents submitted to be double spaced, and of a certain size, to ensure information is not intentionally hidden in small sized text.

Another provision in the bill implements a $500 fee to file a petition, which is meant to ease administrative costs and discourage submission of a series of documents with minor language variations.  The filing fee would be refundable if the petition was certified to be on the ballot for a vote.

Ashcroft says he’s requested that the $500 fee be applied to the publication of initiative petitions that make it to the ballot.  The secretary’s office is including $6 million in its budget request this year strictly to cover the publication of initiative petitions.

In addition, a 40-cent fee would be charged for each signature collected to cover the cost of verifying them that are incurred by election authorities and county clerks.  The charge would only be imposed if canvassers who collect the signatures are being paid for their work.  According to Sater, Florida and Arizona now have fee systems in place for the collection of signatures.

Also, the word limit on summary statements that explain the intent of the petitions would be expanded from 50-to-150 words.  Summary statements are attached to documents canvassers carry as they’re gathering signatures.

In addition, language used to introduce summary statements would be changed.  The phrase, “Shall the measure summarized be approved?” would replace, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to?”  The change is meant to avoid confusion and manipulation of terminology for political gain.

The bill further stipulates that if there’s a court-ordered change to language in the summary, all signatures gathered prior to the change would be invalidated.

Language in summaries has sparked controversy as recently as last year.  Opponents of a ballot measure brought by unions to place the state’s right to work law before a public vote claimed that wording in the summary was vague, misleading and confusing.

A circuit court judge in Jefferson City agreed with the opponents and rewrote the summary.  The unions responded by appealing to a higher court.  A three-judge panel at the state’s Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City sided with the unions and reinserted the language they favored.  The measure has since been cleared to go before voters.

Secretary Ashcroft says the proposal being considered would safeguard initiative petitions from special interest groups who want to side-step the legislative process.

“Right now, we have individuals that are spending millions of dollars because they can’t get the laws they want, and they want to bypass the legislature,” says Ashcroft.  “I think that’s inappropriate.  And I think that we should not be subsidizing them with tax payer dollars.”

Ashcroft claims hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money goes toward administrative costs to get initiative petitions onto the ballot.

Woody Cozad of First Rule Incorporated contends that charging fees to file a petition, or for collecting signatures, amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.

“You cannot place a fee on a constitutionally guaranteed right,” says Cozad.  “All of us.  All the taxpayers of the state just have to dig in our pockets and put the money into general revenue to pay the costs of guaranteeing the exercise of our fundamental rights.  We can’t do that with a user fee.”

Eric Fey, Democratic Director of Elections for the St. Louis County Election Board says the petition signature verification process is a huge financial drain on his office.

“In 2016 in St. Louis County, we verified about 400,000 petition signatures,” says Fey.  “That’s more than anybody verified, for example, in the whole state of Arizona or Colorado, because in Missouri we verify every single signature.”

Joining the St. Louis County Election Board in supporting the bill at a Tuesday Senate committee hearing were the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, the Missouri Pork Association, the Missouri Municipal League, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

Three unions joined First Rule in opposing the proposal – the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International and Missouri American Federation of Teachers.

The bill would further prohibit initiative petitions from declaring any federal law unconstitutional.  Additionally, it would move back the first day of filing petitions to January 31st after November general elections.  The change would be intended to ease the burden on the secretary of state’s office, which oversees both elections and initiative petitions.

At a committee hearing on the bill, Ashcroft said minor changes are being made to it. He specified that the 40-cent fee for signatures collected didn’t actually represent a charge for all the signatures gathered, but rather was equivalent to the number of valid signatures required to send the measure before voters.

For initiative petitions, that number is in excess of 160,000, as signatures representing 8% of legal voters in any six of the eight congressional districts in Missouri are required.