Jay Devineni, Food & Farm Policy Intern

The Missouri General Assembly is currently considering over a dozen joint resolutions that, if approved, would make it harder for everyday Missourians to initiate and approve amendments to the Missouri Constitution. Ironically, these joint resolutions are, themselves, proposing amendments to the Constitution, which requires voter approval. That means that if any of them is passed by the General Assembly, voters would be asked to approve a Constitutional amendment that would hinder their own ability to directly participate in the democratic process. MCE opposes this legislation because we believe that Missouri’s current system of direct democracy is essential to people’s ability to advocate for their environment and health.

Here is a list of the joint resolutions in question: HJR 2, HJR 5, HJR 9, HJR 14, HJR 15, HJR 20, HJR 21, HJR 22, HJR 25, HJR 26, HJR 27, SJR 2, SJR 11, SJR 13, SJR 19

What would these joint resolutions do?

These joint resolutions primarily come in two forms: (1) those that make it harder for Missourians to put Constitutional amendments on the ballot and (2) those that make it harder for Missourians to approve those Constitutional amendments after they are on the ballot. Typically, Constitutional amendments that make it on the ballot are either referred by the legislature or initiated by Missourians through a petitioning process. This petitioning process is largely what is under attack.

Under the current law, in order to get a Constitutional amendment on the ballot through the initiative petition process, petitions must be signed by 8% of the legal voters in each of two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts (which currently means six of the state’s eight districts). Several of the joint resolutions under consideration propose to increase this signature requirement from 8% to a higher percentage (such as 10%, 12%, or 15%), while also requiring that this threshold be met in every congressional district. In their fiscal notes for these joint resolutions, the Joint Committee on Legislative Research-Oversight Division estimates that this would increase the number of required signatures by 64,000-260,000, depending on the resolution. Whatever the number, it’s clear that these joint resolutions would create additional barriers to getting an amendment on the ballot, a process that is already arduous.

If, after all that work, Missourians are somehow able to get an amendment on the ballot, Republicans in the General Assembly are proposing to increase the percentage of votes required to approve the amendment. The law currently requires a simple majority of votes cast to approve amendments, but some of the joint resolutions under consideration would increase that percentage to 60% of votes cast, two-thirds of votes cast, or even a majority of registered Missouri voters (regardless of the number of votes cast). 

This last proposal is especially concerning, as it would likely raise the threshold to a prohibitively high percentage. Some elections do not even achieve a 50% voter turnout, in which case it would be impossible to pass an amendment. Even with the record turnout that we saw in the November 2020 election, the percentage of votes required would have been 71.68%. What’s even worse is that this joint resolution, as well as some others, only applies this standard to Constitutional amendments that arise from initiative petitions, leaving the approval process for legislatively referred Constitutional amendments untouched. That would create an unfathomable double standard, although the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee — which passed many of these resolutions — appears to prefer the proposals that apply changes to both types of amendments.

Click here to view the February 10 House Elections and Elected Officials Committee hearing for the joint resolutions, where legislators and witnesses explained their viewpoints.

Why are Missouri legislators pursuing these joint resolutions?

The legislators who support these proposals — almost exclusively Republicans — have cited three main reasons for doing so: (1) they believe the Missouri Constitution is a foundational document that shouldn’t be altered without a broad consensus of the people; (2) they want to cut down on the number of petitions being filed, particularly those that are haphazardly conceived; (3) they want to deter out-of-state special interest groups from having a say in Missouri’s affairs. 

While there are elements of logic to all of these reasons (which will be addressed below), Missouri politicians have not meaningfully changed this process since its inception in 1908, which begs the question, “Why now?” The answer is that Republican legislators have only recently become frustrated by the process, as several progressive amendments have been initiated and approved by the people over the last five years, including Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana legalization, and the Clean Missouri amendment that restricted campaign contributions and created a new redistricting process.

To be fair to the politicians who support these joint resolutions, the Missouri Constitution is a foundational document that fundamentally shapes the way the state government operates in Missouri, so amendments to the Constitution should not be considered lightly. Many Republican legislators have argued that the initiative statute process, which allows everyday Missourians to propose laws rather than Constitutional amendments, is a better avenue for direct democracy. What they are not telling you is that it is much easier for them to repeal those laws than it is for them to repeal Constitutional amendments. 

For example, Missouri voters used the initiative statute process to enact campaign contribution limits in 1994, only to see that law repealed by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2008. In response, Missourians chose to pursue new limits by amending the Constitution rather than the law, since legislators can only repeal Constitutional amendments using their own voter-approved amendments. After a few bumps in the road, voters were able to establish new limits through the Clean Missouri amendment in 2018. Legislators succeeded in repealing Clean Missouri’s redistricting requirements with a voter-approved amendment in 2020, but the campaign contribution limits remained intact. So, while the Constitution shouldn’t be amended lightly, such amendments are the only true way for Missourians to make their voices heard without the risk of legislators completely undermining them. Many people would prefer to use the initiative statute process, but history has eroded their trust in legislators to respect the statutes that they pass.

Another stated reason for these joint resolutions is the legislature’s desire to reduce the number of petitions, all of which must be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office before signatures can be collected. This reasoning is motivated by the high volume of petitions that the office receives during each 18-month filing cycle, most of which never make it on the ballot. During the 2018 cycle, 371 petitions were filed, but only six of these made it onto the ballot. During the 2020 cycle, 148 petitions were filed, but only one made it onto the ballot. Republican politicians, including Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, say that the proposed changes will cut down on “frivolous” petitions, but some worthwhile petitions are also likely to be thwarted.

The General Assembly is also trying to reduce the number of petitions through two bills, SB 149 and HB 333. These bills create a $500 filing fee for petitions, which is refunded if the petition is certified for the ballot. Given how few petitions actually make it onto the ballot, the vast majority of filers would not get their money back. This would create a disturbing deterrent for low-income individuals, who often have the greatest need for reform of systems in which they live, reforms that are often accomplished through policy. It would also have a chilling effect on the entire petitioning process, with the Secretary of State’s Office estimating a 75% reduction in the number of petitions filed. Furthermore, the bills require all of the signatures on a petition to be invalidated if a court orders a “substantial” change to the official ballot title, giving the court system far too much power to override the democratic process.

Finally, supporters of these proposals claim that they want to deter out-of-state special interest groups from altering Missouri’s Constitution. To be clear, out-of-state interest groups have influenced Missouri politics, such as a Washington-based dark money nonprofit called North Fund, which spent over $2.6 million in support of Medicaid expansion and over $1.1 million in opposition to the amendment that rolled back part of Clean Missouri. Admittedly, we need more transparency and better regulations in this area, but there are far more effective ways of achieving that goal than by silencing voters through this undemocratic legislation.


How would these joint resolutions have affected past amendments?

To answer this question, MCE compiled and analyzed data on all 317 Constitutional amendment proposals that have made it onto the ballot since 1908, when the current initiative-referendum process was adopted. In the table below, you can see the percentage of those proposals that were approved with a 50% majority, as well as the percentage that would have been approved if that threshold was raised to the levels that are currently being proposed by Republican legislators:

All-time: Percentage of amendments on the ballot that would have passed if the approval threshold was…
Approval Threshold 50% 60% 66.66% 71.68%*
All Amendments on the Ballot 50.8% 24.3% 14.8% 8.2%
Amendments from Initiative Petitions 40.6% 20.3% 13.0% 8.7%
Amendments from the Legislature 53.4% 25.1% 15.0% 7.7%
*71.68% is our conservative estimate of the threshold needed if amendments require a majority of registered voters to approve them (based on November 2020 voter turnout)

As you can see, raising the approval threshold from 50% to 60% would have cut the number of approved amendments in half. Raising the threshold to two-thirds would have reduced the number of approved amendments by about 70%. And raising the threshold to a majority of registered voters (a threshold that would likely be higher than our conservative estimate of 71.68%) would have made it nearly impossible to amend the Constitution. Notably, amendments that were referred from the legislature and those that arose from initiative petitions would have been similarly affected.

However, Missouri’s entire history of Constitutional ballot measures isn’t necessarily representative of the current state of politics. In the early years, Constitutional amendments only rarely attained the majority vote that they needed, and 31 amendments were defeated on the ballot before the first one was even adopted. Today, amendments are approved more frequently, so it’s worth taking a look at a more recent sample. The table below only includes amendments that made it onto the ballot from the year 2000 onward, a total of 44 ballot measures:

2000-2020: Percentage of amendments on the ballot that would have passed if the approval threshold was…
Approval Threshold 50% 60% 66.66% 71.68%*
All Amendments on the Ballot 70.5% 45.5% 29.5% 20.5%
Amendments from Initiative Petitions 60.0% 40.0% 20.0% 13.3%
Amendments from the Legislature 75.0% 46.4% 32.1% 21.4%
*71.68% is our conservative estimate of the threshold needed if amendments require a majority of registered voters to approve them (based on November 2020 voter turnout)

The approval rate is higher across the board, although raising the approval threshold would still have resulted in far fewer amendments getting passed. It’s important to remember that some of the joint resolutions under consideration only raise the threshold for amendments that arise from initiative petitions. These resolutions would likely cause the approval rate of those amendments to plummet to 40% or less, while allowing the legislature’s proposals to maintain a high approval rate. Even if a resolution raises the threshold for both types of amendments, the looming barriers being created in the initiative petition process would likely cause the number of Constitutional amendments that arise from initiative petitions to decrease relative to those that are referred from the General Assembly.


What can we do to stop these joint resolutions?

First, you can directly call or email your state senator and representative and ask them to oppose this legislation. If you don’t know who your legislators are, you can look them up here and click on their names to find their contact information.

Second, you can submit written testimony opposing these proposals whenever they are scheduled for public committee hearings. Check out our bill tracker to see a full list of the anti-democracy legislation that we are following, and revisit it regularly to find out when hearings get scheduled. Once a bill or resolution is scheduled for a hearing, you can submit your testimony through the House witness system or the Senate witness system.

Finally, if any of these joint resolutions is passed by the General Assembly and makes it onto the ballot, you can exercise your Constitutional rights by voting against it. The entire initiative-referendum process was designed to protect Missourians from corrupt politicians, so no matter what they try to do in the legislature, you have the ultimate power to protect our democracy.