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Missouri Democrats filibuster plan to curb direct democracy. Could GOP shut them down?

In World
May 14, 2024

A lengthy filibuster from Democrats has blocked all action in the Missouri Senate, halting Republicans from passing legislation that would weaken direct democracy by making it harder for voters to amend the state constitution.

Opposition to the legislation is poised to consume the Senate’s final week of session, which ends on Friday. Senate Democrats began the filibuster Monday afternoon and continued to hold the floor for more than 22 hours into Tuesday afternoon.

The protracted filibuster has raised the possibility that Senate Republicans will deploy a rarely-used procedural maneuver to cut off debate. But doing so would be viewed as a sign of disrespect within the chamber and threaten to blow up the entire session.

The measure, filed by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican running for Missouri secretary of state, seeks to overhaul the state’s century-old initiative petition process that allows voters to place constitutional amendments on the ballot by gathering signatures.

It would require future amendments to the state constitution to be approved essentially twice, a majority vote in at least five of the state’s eight congressional districts, and a majority vote statewide. Currently, constitutional amendments only need a majority vote statewide and have been used by voters for more than 100 years.

The change would effectively dilute the voting power of urban and suburban districts, allowing a coalition of rural areas to veto constitutional amendments widely supported in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have criticized the legislation as an attack on democracy. If approved by the Senate, it would be placed on the ballot, either in November or at an earlier election called by Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

The core of the filibuster centers on removing from the measure deceptive language labeled “ballot candy” by both supporters and opponents. The ballot question that would be placed in front of voters would ask Missourians whether they want to ban foreign interference in ballot measures and allow only U.S. citizens to vote on constitutional amendments.

Both are already illegal.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said the extra provisions were intended to deceive voters.

“The underlying issue, which is basically undoing ‘one person, one vote,’ making sure that every Missourian’s vote counts equally in our state — that’s an unpopular idea,” she said.

Democrats took shifts late into Monday evening and into Tuesday morning railing against the legislation until the provisions were removed. They said they were prepared to block the measure until the last day of the session on Friday.

“Missouri, you have to watch these people that want to intentionally deceive you,” Sen. Karla May, a St. Louis Democrat, said late Monday evening. “Let your yay be yay, and your nay be nay. Anything in between is deception.”

The measure, called “IP reform” by supporters, has long been a priority for Republicans.

Historically, voters have used the initiative petition process to advance policies and ideas when the General Assembly fails to come to an agreement.

Since 2018, ballot initiatives in Missouri have led voters to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana, overturn a right-to-work law — which would have prevented unions from requiring employees to pay union dues — and expand eligibility for Medicaid.

Voters this year could vote on amendments to legalize sports betting and overturn the state’s near-total abortion ban.

“I think it’s far too easy to change the constitution in this state,” said Sen. Mike Cierpiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican.

But the renewed energy to whittle away at the initiative petition process comes as the campaign to overturn the state’s strict abortion ban looms over the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Some anti-abortion Republicans are hoping to place the question on the August ballot as a way to block potential abortion rights vote. However, some politicians and legal experts have questioned whether changes to the initiative petition process would be able to take effect before the vote.

The campaign to overturn the abortion ban could put pressure on Senate Republicans to cut off the Democratic filibuster through a Previous Question motion or PQ. The move to shut off debate is viewed as the chamber’s nuclear option and has only been used eight times since 2007 — most recently in 2020.

Members of the hard-right Missouri Freedom Caucus told reporters last week that they had a written agreement from Republican leadership that the Senate would continue to debate the measure until a PQ was used or the session ended.

The Star requested copies of any such agreements from the offices of Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, a Shelbina Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican. Both said they did not have documents responsive to the request.

One member of the Freedom Caucus, Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Warrensburg Republican, said in an interview that a PQ motion was “definitely an option.”

“The Previous Question’s one of the extreme things to do in order to combat the filibuster,” he said. “We have a vast, a super-majority of Republicans, and so we ought to be able to get some big red Republican things done.”

However, it’s unclear whether Senate Republicans, who have been gripped by infighting for most of the session, would be able to get a majority of their colleagues to support the motion.

Rowden said in a text to The Star Monday evening that he wasn’t sure whether there was enough support for one. Cierpiot went a step further Monday afternoon, indicating that he would not support the motion.

“I think the Democrats have acted fairly and in good faith,” he said. “As long as people are negotiating, I don’t think a PQ is called for. Now, there’s people in my caucus that disagree with that.”

As the filibuster continued on Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat, pointed to the irony of Republicans potentially shutting down legislative debate to pursue a measure that would weaken direct democracy.

“We’ve been threatened with a motion to shut down debate so that a small group of the majority can twist arms and force this legislation through,” Beck said in a statement. “It’s amazing that Republicans want to silence us in the Senate just so they can silence voters at the ballot box.”

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