Editorial: Missouri politicians are pushing to centralize power by restricting citizen petitions

One great thing about Missouri: When legislators won't act, voters can -- and will.

A referendum process allows Show-Me State residents a significant voice in their government by amending the state constitution. Missouri voters used that process to expand Medicaid in 2020, then to decriminalize marijuana in 2022. And with the 2024 election on the horizon, there is a good chance that voters could soon choose to end the abortion restrictions that some conservatives favor.

Republicans in the General Assembly don't like these developments much.

That's why -- once again -- GOP legislators are pushing to overhaul the citizen-led initiative process. Their proposal would entrench authority in Jefferson City while diminishing the political power of voters in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Most important, the proposal would make it much more difficult for Missourians to have a say in how their state is run.

The folks behind the new proposal say that's a good thing.

"I think it's important to mention that the Missouri Constitution is the highest document of our state," Rep. Brad Hudson, a Cape Fair Republican, told the MissouriNet radio network. The point of the new proposal is to "make it a process where it's not too easy" for voters to amend that document.

Missouri voters should be dubious.

Right now, citizen-led initiatives can pass with a simple majority of votes. If 100,000 voters weigh in on a measure, it takes 50,001 votes to pass.

Republicans in the legislature last spring attempted to raise that threshold to 57% of voters. That measure failed.

Now Hudson and seven other Republicans are back with a proposal that would keep the simple majority requirement, but only as a start. A referendum would also have to get a majority of the vote in five of the state's eight congressional districts.

It's a supermajority by a different name.

The idea, plainly, is to shift Missouri's balance of power away from the two urban congressional districts in Kansas City and St. Louis to give rural voters a veto over initiatives -- no matter what a majority of the state's voters say.

"What you have with concurrent majority ratification is you got buy-in from different areas of the state," Hudson said. "It makes sure that rural areas have a say in the process and that's only appropriate when we are amending the highest document of our state."

Rural Missourians would no doubt be delighted by that idea. So it's important to note that the proposed reform wouldn't just disempower city voters. It would also centralize power with Jefferson City politicians.

Why? Because legislators draw the congressional maps. The proposal would let them put their thumb on the referendum scales.

Redistricting is already an ugly process. Remember, legislative Republicans attempted to gerrymander Kansas City Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, out of his seat during the 2022 redistricting process. That effort failed and new maps were only passed after a long stalemate. Imagine the map-drawing battles that might be fought if the fate of citizen initiatives -- over abortion and other hot-button issues -- was hanging in the balance?

No thanks.

One thing that makes the referendum process great is that it lets voters act when their representatives refuse to do so. That's also the reason those elected officials want to change the process. They want the power for themselves.

But Missouri voters shouldn't let them do so lightly. Voters in some of our neighboring states are envious of the democratic powers that residents here enjoy, after all. Seventy percent of Kansans would like to expand Medicaid, after all, but legislators in Topeka refuse to do so. There is no citizen-led initiative process that lets Sunflower State voters duplicate Missouri's feat.

The Missouri Constitution states plainly that "all political power is vested in and derived from the people; that all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole."

We have a government by the people, in other words, not a majority of congressional districts. It should stay that way.

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