Miss. makes initiative process difficult

Published 2:07 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2009

That a voter identification initiative won’t make it on the 2010 ballot is likely of no surprise to its Republican Party sponsors or Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who delivered the message to legislative leaders this past week.

In the 17 years since Mississippi’s initiative law was enacted, only two citizen-sponsored constitutional amendments have made it to the ballot. Both dealt with term limits, and both were soundly defeated.

Of the 30 initiatives sponsored since 1993, only six remain active, including the GOP-backed plan to make voters show ID at the polls.

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There have been few legislative efforts to revise the law that spells out how to change the state constitution by gathering signatures on petitions to put proposed amendments on statewide ballots.

One effort to change the initiative law came in 1998. Stung by well-financed out-of-state organizations that sought to put limits on public officials’ terms, legislators placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment that only let Mississippi residents circulate initiative petitions.

A federal judge in 1997 ruled unconstitutional a 1995 law that would have done the same thing. The law also would have prevented payment to people getting signatures to place initiatives on statewide ballots.

That prompted the constitutional amendment, which 77 percent of voters approved in 1998.

Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice was a supporter of term limits, especially for members of the Legislature, and vetoed the 1995 bill, saying it was “probably unconstitutional, and, at the very least, violative of a principle that should be held sacred.” Legislators overrode that veto.

The residency requirement for signature gatherers was needed to keep “a bunch of carpetbaggers” from interfering with Mississippi’s business, said Rep. Steve Holland. D-Plantersville, after the constitutional amendment passed the House in 1998.

While Mississippi’s initiative process promised an avenue for action by citizens, it is also considered one of the toughest of the country.

The Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, in a 1992 analysis of the initiative system, acknowledged the law’s complexity.

“Initiative sponsors and proponents will of necessity be organized, well funded, and dedicated in order to see any measure succeed. Opponents, then, will organize and act equally, though it would appear that the arduous system itself gives them an advantage,” according to researchers.

The Stennis Institute found Mississippi’s initiative process had the second highest signature threshold in the country, a geographic distribution requirement of those signatures more difficult to meet than any other state and a “super-majority” voting requirement.

Stennis researchers found between the amendment itself and the legislative enactment that prescribes the details of the initiative process, there are at least 19 separate steps that must be observed before an initiative can make it to the ballot.

Hosemann told lawmakers this past week his office has verified almost 19,000 signatures on the voter ID petition. Brad White, chairman of the state Republican Party, said his group has collected about 40,000 signatures; he needs around 90,000.

Sponsors face a February 2010 deadline to get the issue on the November 2011 ballot.

Getting the correct number of signatures from each part of the state can be tricky.

State law requires the signatures to be divided equally among the five U.S. House districts Mississippi used during the 1990s: in the northeast, the Delta, east-central, southwest and the Gulf Coast.

Even then, the issue goes back to the Legislature, which can draw up its own proposal to submit to voters along with the original initiative.