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Analysis: Reviving initiative process could invite mischief

Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson

The biggest area for legislative mischief could be in increasing the number of signatures needed on petitions.

Posted: May 31, 2021 8:27 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi legislators can do business the easy way or the hard way if they revive the state's initiative process that was recently invalidated by a state Supreme Court decision.

The easy way would be to adopt the same process that Mississippi has used for decades, tweaking it only to resolve a problem pointed out in the court ruling.

The hard way would be to open the process for lots of debate that could muck up an already complex system and make it even more burdensome for citizens petitioning to put issues on the statewide ballot.

The biggest area for legislative mischief could be in increasing the number of signatures needed on petitions.

The initiative process is in Section 273 of the Mississippi Constitution. It requires initiative organizers to gather a number of signatures equal to 12% of the total votes for all candidates in the most recent election for governor.

Legislators could make the initiative process harder by either increasing that 12% margin, or by keeping the same percentage but applying it to the state's turnout for the presidential election, which is traditionally higher.

In 2019, for example, 884,911 votes were cast for all candidates for governor; 12% of that is 106,189.

In 2020, Mississippi residents cast 1,313,759 votes for all candidates for president; 12% of that is 157,651.

Legislators could also tighten the timeline. Organizers now have a year to gather signatures, and most initiatives never make it to the ballot because organizers fail to get enough people to sign. A shorter timeline would make the effort even harder.

The Supreme Court heard arguments about the initiative process because that was the central focus of a lawsuit that sought to block a medical marijuana proposal.

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler sued the state days before the 2020 general election, arguing that Initiative 65 was not properly on the ballot.

Butler opposed Initiative 65 because it would have limited cities’ ability to regulate the location of medical marijuana businesses, but her court arguments had nothing to do with zoning. Instead, her attorneys questioned the validity of the signature gathering process.

Mississippi requires initiative sponsors to collect one-fifth of their petition signatures from each congressional district. The process was set in the 1990s, when Mississippi had five districts. The state dropped to four districts after the 2000 census because of stagnant population, but legislators ignored attempts to update the initiative requirements.

Recognition of the five districts/four districts problem is not new. The state attorney general issued a legal opinion in 2009 saying initiative sponsors should collect signatures from the five old districts.

Butler's attorneys argued that because Mississippi has four current districts, it makes no sense to use the five old ones. They also said the constitution creates a mathematical impossibility: With four districts, more than one-fifth of the signatures must come from each.

State attorneys argued that congressional districts have multiple purposes. They are used to elect members of the U.S. House, but the current or old districts are also used for choosing members to some state regulatory boards.

A majority of justices agreed with Butler in the May 14 ruling.

Before the that Supreme Court decision, Mississippi was one of the 24 states with an initiative process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

About 1.3 million people voted in Mississippi in November, and more than 766,000 of them voted in favor of the medical marijuana proposal. That’s about 10,000 more residents than voted the same day for then-President Donald Trump, who easily won in Mississippi despite losing his race for a second term.

More than 200 supporters of medical marijuana protested last week near the Mississippi Capitol and the state Supreme Court building, and many of them also marched past the Governor's Mansion. They demanded that legislators create a medical marijuana program, and that the state revive its process for citizen-led initiatives.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 819597

Reported Deaths: 15406
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147901924
Mobile725791338
Madison52306697
Shelby37597350
Baldwin37245552
Tuscaloosa35101612
Montgomery34106740
Lee23526246
Calhoun22225488
Morgan20941378
Etowah19825500
Marshall18361304
Houston17384412
St. Clair16054339
Cullman15443293
Limestone15343199
Elmore15241286
Lauderdale14302295
Talladega13836283
DeKalb12649261
Walker11202370
Blount10192176
Autauga10043148
Jackson9871184
Coffee9210191
Dale8897185
Colbert8860201
Tallapoosa7084198
Escambia6772134
Covington6712183
Chilton6641162
Russell636659
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion5005127
Dallas4973200
Pike4795106
Clarke475584
Geneva4571127
Winston4516103
Lawrence4321117
Bibb425186
Barbour357776
Marengo338090
Monroe331464
Randolph329764
Butler326396
Pickens316284
Henry312666
Hale311388
Cherokee302860
Fayette292880
Washington251551
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234663
Lamar224147
Conecuh186153
Coosa180240
Lowndes175164
Wilcox168839
Bullock151644
Perry138840
Sumter133038
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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