Mississippi House votes to restore citizen’s initiative process

Published 7:00 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

Mississippi might revive an initiative process, but people would be banned from putting abortion laws or budget proposals on the statewide ballot under a measure moving forward at the state Capitol.

The House voted 75-9 Wednesday to adopt an initiative proposal, making changes to a resolution the Senate adopted last month. Negotiators are likely to work on a final version later this month.

Starting in the 1990s, Mississippi had an initiative process for people to put proposed state constitutional amendments on the ballot. In 2021, the state Supreme Court ruled the process was invalid because it required an equal number of signatures from five congressional districts. Mississippi dropped to four congressional districts after the 2000 Census, but initiative language was never updated.

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The resolution to revive Mississippi’s initiative process would allow proposed laws, rather than constitutional amendments, to go on the ballot.

Once a constitutional amendment is approved, any attempt to revise or repeal it would need to go back on the statewide ballot for voters to consider. Changing a state law is simpler: That can be done by a majority vote in the Mississippi Legislature.

The prohibition on abortion initiatives was added by a House committee last week. It’s unclear whether that portion will survive in final negotiations.

The U.S. Supreme Court used a Mississippi case last June to upend abortion rights nationwide, and Mississippi now bans most abortions.

In 2011, Mississippi voters rejected a personhood initiative, which would have defined life as beginning at conception. That surprised many abortion rights opponents, including Republican Phil Bryant, who was elected governor the same day the initiative failed. Bryant had said days earlier that if voters were to reject the life-at-conception initiative, “Satan wins.”

During Wednesday’s debate, Democratic Rep. Daryl Porter Jr., of McComb, asked Republican Rep. Nick Bain, of Corinth, why abortion initiatives would be banned under the new plan. Bain said that’s what some representatives wanted.

“I’m fine with that,” Bain said. “The state of Mississippi, I think, follows the long policy. It certainly follows along with my constituents. They do not want abortion.”

Porter responded: “Your constituents. What about mine? … We are going to stifle the people’s voices by telling them, ‘You can have the initiative process, convoluted, but here are also some things that you can’t put on the ballot.’”

Bain said he disagrees that voices would be stifled.

“It’s safe to say the state of Mississippi is pro-life,” Bain said.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion ruling in June, voters in six states have either expanded or protected existing abortion rights through ballot initiatives. Kansas protected abortion rights in August, and five other states have either enshrined those rights or rejected constitutional restrictions on abortion.

The proposal to revive Mississippi’s initiative process would require an equal number of signatures from each current congressional district.

The Senate version would require petitions to be signed by at least 12% of the state’s registered voters as of the last presidential election. That would be about 240,000 signatures.

The House voted Wednesday to require the same number of signatures as the previous initiative process — at least 12% of the total votes in the most recent gubernatorial election. That would be about 106,000 signatures.