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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Friday, December 07, 2007

What Ever Happened to Mississippi's Initiative Process?

The initiative is a tool for citizens to use to bypass the legislature in enacting laws. Some states have had the initiative since the early 1900s. In 1992, Mississippi adopted the initiative process for amending the state constitution. It's important to note that, with a few exceptions, any measure that can become a statutory law can also be written into the constitution. That's why some state constitutions are some ten times as long as the U. S. Constitution.

In 1998, Mississippi changed the law so that only state residents are eligible to circulate initiative petitions. That may seem like a good idea at first blush, but it effectively killed our state's initiative process. Mississippi's rules for getting an initiative on the ballot are quite complicated, and we have few if any experienced in-state circulators. And paid circulators are much more productive than volunteers, so it takes money as well as time to get the required number of valid signatures.

For years, we've had well-paid out-of-state political consultants working in our election campaigns here. If that's all right, why should it not also be OK for out-of-state circulators to gather signatures to qualify initiatives for Mississippi's ballot? Only two initiatives have ever reached the ballot here, both involving term limits (1995 and 1999). There is, on the other hand, a long list of measures that have been sponsored, but which failed to get enough signatures within the mandatory year's time.

To my knowledge, only South Dakota, Colorado, and Oklahoma have similar laws banning out-of-state circulators for initiative petitions.* A federal lawsuit, Yes on Term Limits v. Savage, has been brought against Oklahoma's law and is now in the 10th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last September 7, a federal district judge issued what, in my view, was a misguided ruling upholding the Oklahoma law. I cannot imagine the U. S. Supreme Court validating such a statute, but, at any rate, this suit bears watching, as it may well have ramifications for Mississippi.

The hypocrisy of Oklahoma's attorney general, Drew Edmondson, and the state Supreme Court on this issue has been monumental. Edmondson, who clearly has higher political ambitions, has sought to imprison Paul Jacob and two others for up to ten years for circulating petitions in the Sooner State. The Supreme Court has practiced a double standard: it seemed to consider out-of-state circulators to be OK for a measure that it liked (banning cock-fighting) but nullified an initiative for a proposal that it disliked (the 2006 Taxpayers Bill of Rights). An Oklahoma state legislator has written a letter to the Wall Street Journal decrying the outrage.

I would like to see a citizens' initiative here for something that the Mississippi legislature won't pass: nonpartisan elections (popularly called "open primaries") for our county and municipal officials. I'm convinced that, if we could get such a measure on the ballot, the voters would approve it decisively. Repealing the law banning out-of-state petition circulators would be a helpful step toward accomplishing that.

* California in effect has a residency requirement. Circulators must be registered voters or eligible to register. The District of Columbia has a residency requirement, but each circulator may have a non-resident "helper/advocate."


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