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Missouri GOP cloaks a measure limiting ballot initiatives with language about citizen-only voting

 Rep. Jamie Burger, R-Benton, seated, listens as Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, answers a question on Feb. 1, 2023
Tim Bommel
Missouri House of Representatives
Rep. Jamie Burger, R-Benton, seated, listens as Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, answers a question on Feb. 1, 2023.

The Missouri House passed a GOP-backed bill that would increase the threshold needed for voter approval of a proposed constitutional amendment. But the first language that Missourians actually asks whether the constitution should be amended to “allow only citizens" to vote — something that's already clear under state law.

Missouri Republicans have long argued a successful 2018 initiative petition establishing a nonpartisan redistricting process duped voters by pairing it with politically popular proposals like limits on lobbyist gifts to legislators.

Two years later, the GOP got in on the act, pushing its own ballot measure repealing the nonpartisan plan by tying it to a complete ban on lobbyist gifts.

Now the debate over so-called “ballot candy” — pairing a popular idea with a more controversial one in a ballot measure as a way to win over voters — is back.

The Missouri House passed legislation this week aimed at making it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process. The Republican-backed bill would increase the threshold needed for voter approval of a proposed constitutional amendment from a simple majority to 60%.

But the change needs voter approval, and the first bullet point in the summary crafted by Republican lawmakers that would be placed on the statewide ballot doesn’t mention initiative petitions at all.

Instead, it asks Missourians whether the constitution should be amended to “allow only citizens of the United States to qualify as legal voters.”

That one line dominated House debate this week.

“We know it’s put in there to be deceptive to voters,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.

Republicans deny they are attempting to trick anyone. But they don’t offer much in the way of explanation for the ideas’ prominent placement.

“I couldn’t tell you,” said House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, when asked Thursday why the citizen-voting question was placed at the top of the ballot summary.

“I mean, it’s something we believe in strongly,” he said.

Democrats call the proposal a cynical ploy to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment in order to trick voters into accepting an otherwise unpopular idea. Adding to their angst is the fact that election experts say the state constitution is already clear that only citizens are allowed to vote in Missouri.

“Article VIII, Section 2 of the Missouri Constitution limits the right to vote to U.S. citizens,” said Travis Crum, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

The right to vote for immigrants in Missouri who had declared their intent to become citizens was removed from the state constitution in 1924.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Aschroft’s office has previously clarified that current state law also says “you have to be a citizen to register to vote.”

“There is zero evidence of wide-scale non-citizen voting in Missouri,” Crum said. “The specter of non-citizens voting has been a boogeyman for years around the country, and no one who’s pushing this theory has come up with any proof that it’s a systemic problem.”

Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said he has asked Republicans — in committee, as well as during floor debate — why the citizenship question needed to be the first bullet point in the summary.

“They won’t answer the question,” Smith said. “Everyone in this building knows what’s going on. They know that they’re just trying to get this through, and this is the way to do it. And it’s wrong and it’s misleading.”

Republicans say the change is a needed constitutional clarification, from “all citizens” are allowed to vote to “only citizens.”

During debate, some GOP legislators pointed to examples like San Francisco, where in 2016 voters passed an ordinance allowing non-citizen parents of children in schools to vote only in school board elections.

A local judge overturned that ordinance last year, saying it violated California’s constitution. That ruling is currently before an appeals court.

Republican Rep. Mike Henderson of Bonne Terre, who sponsored the proposed changes to Missouri’s initiative petition process, said that even without his legislation, non-citizens are already unable to vote in Missouri.

But he insisted the provision should be included, and he opposed Democratic efforts to move the citizen-only language lower in the ballot summary. He said the language has been vetted by attorneys in order to ensure it could withstand a legal challenge.

“We’ve worked hard on this ballot language,” he said, “and I’d like to keep it right where it is.”

The summary appearing on the ballot is capped at 50 words, Plocher said, and he doesn’t think Missouri voters will stop reading after the first bullet point.

“It’s only 50 words,” Plocher said. “It’s not hard to read 50 words. I think citizens will read all 50 words. I mean, what do you go to the ballot box for, to just read the first two words? Because if that’s the case, the first person on the ballot would win every time.”

The change is crucial, Plocher said, to “better articulate who should be able to vote in the initiative petition process. It is essentially part and parcel to everything we’re trying to accomplish.”

And ballot candy doesn’t always work. Missouri voters soundly rejected a gas tax hike in 2018 despite it being sold as a way to increase funding for law enforcement.

The push to make it harder to amend the state constitution has been a GOP priority for years.

Over the last decade, the initiative petition process has been used to make an end run around the legislature to successfully amend Missouri’s constitution to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility and legalize marijuana.

Plocher said the current version of the Missouri Constitution has changed more than 60 times since it was written in 1945. In comparison, he said, the U.S. Constitution has been amended only 17 times since 1791.

“Our constitution is meant to be a sacred document,” he said, “but is now one that has grown dramatically in size because of out-of-state interests that have spent millions of dollars here in Missouri to change our way of life,”

Henderson said he trusts Missourians to make the final decision on his bill.

“We’re going to ask the people to vote,” Henderson said. “The people of Missouri will decide if we are right or wrong. We are not overstepping the people. We are going to the people and asking them to say what is your opinion of this? Should it be changed to 60%?”

Republicans are trying to trick Missouri voters with the citizenship language, Quade said, but it won’t work. She noted voters rejected similar proposals in Arkansas and South Dakota by overwhelming margins.

“We know all across the country, “she said, “where they have tried to go after the ballot initiative process, voters are with us in saying that they want to continue to have a voice in democracy.”

This story was originally published in the Missouri Independent.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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