5 reasons lawmakers might not want to restore the ballot initiative

·4 min read
Hannah Ruhoff/hruhoff@sunherald.com

Mississippi is the only state in the modern era to rescind its initiative process that allowed voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues directly on the ballot.

In 2021 the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the signature-gathering process as spelled out in the Constitution to place issues on the ballot. The ruling resulted in a medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November 2020 and the entire initiative process being found to be invalid.

The Legislature could not agree during the 2022 session on language to revive the initiative process.

If the Legislature did restore the initiative, there would be at least five issues that could be the subject of initiative efforts. Those five issues, all opposed by many of the state’s political leaders, might be the reason legislators are reluctant to revive the initiative.

Those five initiatives would:

• Expand Medicaid.

• Allow early voting.

• Approve recreational marijuana.

• Restore abortion rights.

• Allow people convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights at some point after they complete their sentence.

No doubt, there are other issues that most likely would be the subject of initiative efforts if the process was restored. Generally, initiatives are undertaken when legislators refuse to act on issues, such as on medical marijuana recently and on voter identification in 2011.

Medical marijuana was being rejected by the Legislature as a whole. In 2011, one chamber of the Legislature – the Democratic-controlled House – was blocking the enactment of a voter ID requirement.

Just like with medical marijuana and voter ID, the five issues cited above are currently being blocked by key legislators.

Medicaid expansion

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid to provide health insurance for primarily the working poor. The two biggest obstacles to Medicaid expansion have been House Speaker Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves, who argue the state cannot afford to cover Mississippi’s share of the costs. Various studies have concluded that the expansion would actually be a boon to state coffers since the federal government would pay the bulk of the costs.

Various diverse groups ranging from the Mississippi Hospital Association to the Delta Council have endorsed expansion.

Early voting

Despite the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters bemoaning the evils of early voting, 46 states allow no excuse early voting and 27 permit voting by mail. And most states were allowing the various forms of early voting long before the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

And truth be known, early voting has long been popular. Still, Reeves and other Mississippi politicians proudly proclaim they will block any effort to place Mississippi within the mainstream of states by enacting no excuse early voting.

Recreational marijuana

Like with early voting and Medicaid expansion, there was a recreational marijuana initiative being considered when the Mississippi Supreme Court shut down the initiative process.

And granted, it might be a long shot that Mississippi voters would approve recreational marijuana. But marijuana supporters in Arkansas garnered significantly more signatures than needed to place the issue on the November ballot.

If Arkansans approve or come close to approving recreational marijuana in November, that could be a sign that Mississippians also are willing to consider the issue.

Felony suffrage

Mississippi is one of a few states (less than 10) that do not restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence. The felony suffrage provision was incorporated into the 1890 Constitution by those attempting to prevent African Americans from voting.

Voters in Florida recently voted via ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

Abortion rights

Granted, it has long been perceived that Mississippians as a whole are staunchly anti-abortion. But after the June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Mississippi decision – Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – overturning Roe v. Wade and rescinding a national right to an abortion, there has been a hue and cry by some to let Mississippians vote on the issue. After all, people who support abortion rights figure they have nothing to lose since existing Mississippi laws ban most abortions.

And there are a few reasons to give abortion rights supporters hope. For instance, in Kansas, a conservative state like Mississippi, voters recently rejected an anti-abortion proposal at the ballot box.

In addition, when Mississippians voted on abortion in 2011, they overwhelmingly defeated the “Personhood” initiative that defined life as beginning at conception. Plus, recent polling indicates that a vote on abortion in Mississippi might be close.

But unless the Legislature restores the initiative, we may never know how Mississippians feel about these issues and others.

This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.