In Mississippi, voters have become accustomed to being disregarded, discounted and dismissed. For every inch of progress Mississippi makes, it always seems to take another foot back. Rampant distrust in the electoral system is created when voters head to the polls, voice their opinions on a specific issue and despite a majority in approval, remain on edge about whether the measure they passed will be made into law.
Let me introduce you to Mississippi’s broken ballot initiative process. The 2020 election revealed an apparent progressive streak in Mississippi when 73% of voters approved a new flag design after voting by a 2-1 margin just two decades ago to retain the Jim Crow-era flag that featured Confederate imagery in its canton. Additionally, 79% of voters approved another ballot initiative to change how statewide officials are elected when no candidate receives a majority of the votes. And finally, after more than 200,000 Mississippians signed a petition to put medical marijuana on the ballot, Mississippi voters approved the initiative by a 3-to-1 margin.
Yet, just months after those initiatives were passed by voters, Mississippi’s ballot initiative process was blocked by the state Supreme Court. The reason being, Mississippi had five congressional districts at the time lawmakers wrote the ballot initiative process into law in 1992, but ended up with four after the 2000 census. Mississippi’s constitution states that signature gathering for ballot initiatives must occur in five congressional districts. The power to change that wording lies with Mississippi’s legislature, which has failed to take action in response, until now.
The Republican majority in the Mississippi House has passed legislation, House Concurrent Resolution 39, which would reinstate Mississippi’s ballot initiative process, but not the same one Mississippians previously operated under. It would permit vast government overreach and make the process extremely difficult for Mississippians to achieve success. As I write, the bill awaits consideration in the Mississippi Senate where, if passed, the proposed new process would be placed onto the ballots of Mississippians this fall.
H.C. 39 would allow the Legislature to control the entirety of the rules that regulate the petition circulation process for ballot initiatives, without input from Mississippians. This in itself does not provide for a true people’s process. It would allow partisan politicians to undermine the circulation process if they don’t agree with what citizens are proposing.
Additionally, H.C. 39 would allow the Legislature to override the will of the people. Legislators, provided the capability of overturning the result of an initiative with a two-thirds majority vote, would be able to shoot down any initiative result failing to align with their agendas.
Finally, H.C. 39 would strip Mississippians of their right to propose constitutional amendments while reserving that power only for the legislators themselves. Unlike the previous process, H.C. 39 only allows Mississippians to propose new statutes or amend or repeal existing ones.
The ballot initiative process is the people’s process, utilized by Democrats, Republicans and Independents. If the issue at hand is an error in language, then it shouldn’t take much to replace “five” with “four” congressional districts and end debate. Instead, H.C. 39 is nothing but the Legislature engaging in an opportunistic pursuit to roll back the power of voters even further while strengthening its own ability to halt any sign of progress.
Mississippians cannot afford to lose the ballot initiative process and deserve one that is ridded of government overreach. Alongside Florida and Arkansas, Mississippi is one of a few Southern states that actually provides voters with a ballot initiative process. It oftentimes is Mississippians’ only source of optimism in the face of constant legislative stalemate. Mississippians actually express more confidence in voter-led ballot initiatives as methods of establishing laws than the legislative process. According to polling from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, 47% of Mississippi voters claimed to have confidence in voter-led ballot initiatives as a method of establishing laws compared to the state legislature, where only 27% of voters express such confidence.
Prior to the initiative process being struck down, organizers began to collect signatures for a referendum that would provide Mississippi voters with a period of early voting before elections. While our neighboring states reap the benefits of more voter friendly policies, Mississippi still lacks early voting, online voter registration, automatic voter registration and more. Mississippi’s legislative leaders have failed to modernize its election systems, and alongside the failure by Congress to pass voting rights legislation, the ballot initiative process remains Mississippians’ last source of hope. It provides voters with the ability to take action in the face of inaction by allowing Mississippians to continue a pursuit of voter friendly policies.
This isn’t limited to modernizing Mississippi’s voting policies either. In January, a poll by AARP revealed that 68% of Mississippians over the age of 50, including 57% of Republicans polled, favor expanding Medicaid. Yet, Mississippi remains one of 12 states that has failed to take advantage of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Like early voting, organizers also began to collect signatures to place Medicaid expansion on the ballot ahead of the court’s ruling.
It’s quite clear: Mississippi’s legislative leaders have identified the ballot initiative process as a hindrance to their agendas. Rather than advance policy that is favored by a majority of Mississippians, they’ve decided to chip away at the only tool available to voters to take matters into their own hands.
If placed onto the ballot this November, the legislators will sell H.C. 39 to voters as a restoration of the ballot initiative process, but keep its restrictive details under wraps.
Make no mistake, Mississippi’s ballot initiative process must be restored, but correctly, justly and replicate the previous process enacted by the Legislature in 1992. When the people speak, they must be heard, and there should be no moment of doubt that an initiative will become law following its passage at the ballot box. If Mississippi’s leaders show no interest in establishing such a process, voters should take that into consideration the next time they’re asked for their vote.
Arekia Bennett-Scott is the executive director of Mississippi Votes, a youth-centered civic engagement organization fighting for a fair democracy in Mississippi. So far, Mississippi Votes has registered more than 30,000 new voters throughout the state. Bennett was recently selected as an Emerson Collective fellow in the Democracy Cohort, focusing on Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement laws.