Republican governors, state legislators and secretaries of state have become shameless in their attempts to reverse the results of legitimately passed ballot initiatives. What they’re doing goes far beyond the coy, clever, clandestine dirty tricks that Republicans have honed over many years. They’re not just working behind the scenes: they’re out in the open, declaring publicly their intention to undo what voters have officially said they want.
This is not a rogue strategy: Judging from news reports from a variety of states, this is a trending Republican policy. According to the Washington post,
“In the past two years alone, legislators have filed more than 100 bills across 24 states aimed at reversing ballot measures, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which focuses on advancing progressive priorities through ballot initiatives.
“It’s a power grab,” the center’s executive director Chris Melody Fields Figueredo said last month. “It’s an attempt to take that power away from the people. It is counter to why we have democracy in the first place.”
“The ballot-measure process is under attack,” said Justine Sarver, the executive director of the center. “There were many successful measures in 2016, and we’re seeing many conservative governors saying, ‘I’m not going to implement that.’”
Case in point: Missouri
In November 2018, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved [62% to 38%] a constitutional amendment—dubbed “Clean Missouri”—that will impose campaign-contribution limits, restrict gifts to legislators, and change the way state legislative districts are drawn, to eliminate partisan gerrymandering.
But almost before the last vote was counted on the Clean Missouri initiative, Republican Governor Mike Parson vowed to get behind a legislative effort to repeal it—even though, he acknowledges, his support of a reversal doesn’t look good to voters. [This isn’t Parson’s first screw-the-voters effort: After Missouri voters approved a 2011 initiative that would have shut down inhumane “puppy mills,” Parson—then a state legislator—led a successful legislative drive that put puppy mills back in business even before the new law could take effect.]
Rumor has it that one Republican legislator is preparing to pre-file a bill in the 2019 Missouri legislative session that would undo Clean Missouri immediately. And within days of Clean Missouri’s decisive victory, a new group—with the Orwellian name “Fair Missouri”—began raising money for a new ballot initiative that would erase what voters had just approved.
Missouri is not new to this game. The state has a sordid recent history of undermining, invalidating and/or sabotaging voter-approved initiatives. Here are a few examples:
- 1999: MO voters vote against concealed-carry permits for guns.
2003: MO GOP legislature passes concealed carry law.
- 1990s: MO voters vote for caps on campaign contributions.
2008: MO GOP legislature removes the caps.
- 2011: MO voters pass puppy mill ballot measure. Missouri Republican-dominated legislature reverses it before it can take effect.
- 2015: St. Louis and Kansas City voters pass city minimum wage hikes.
2017: MO GOP undermines the wage hike with its own state- mandated minimum wage.
- 2016: MO voters–again–approve caps on campaign contributions. Missouri Republicans launch a court fight against the new rules.
- 2018: MO voters overwhelmingly reject GOP’s Right to Work legislation via ballot measure.
2019: MO GOP files the legislation again.
For the record, it’s not illegal for Missouri’s legislature to pass laws that reverse the provisions of voter-approved ballot initiatives. According to Ballotpedia, only two states—Arizona and California—have actually made it illegal to change an initiative substantively without sending it back to the voters. In fact, 11 states (and D.C.) can change or repeal initiatives at will, without any restrictions on how soon, or with what majority the legislative body can act.
But, while it may be legal, thumbing your legislative nose at voters reeks of unfairness and a sore-loser, anti-democracy mentality.
“There’s little disagreement that, after offering the choice up to people at the ballot boxes, it’s symbolically fraught to take it away,” writes Sarah Holder, at CityLab. Holder quotes former Washington DC mayor Anthony Williams as saying, “We are facing a situation that is never good for a democracy. The people appear to have spoken, and yet their elected officials are saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.”
As we learned in eighth-grade Civics class, ballot initiatives came about as a way for citizens to be a final check and balance on their representatives. That’s an important principle, and it should be respected. Unfortunately, in Missouri as in too many other states, too many elected officials clearly regard “the will of the people” as merely a suggestion, rather than as a right, and they’re making it their official policy to salute voters with their middle-fingers.