Latest Mississippi ballot initiative proposal would not allow changes to abortion laws

Published 6:11 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

After repeated failed attempts, Mississippi lawmakers will try again to revive a ballot initiative process, but their latest proposal would not allow changes to the state’s abortion laws through a statewide election.
The Republican-dominated House approved the resolution in an 80-39 vote Wednesday hours after an all-male group of Republican lawmakers advanced the resolution in a committee.

House Republicans said the state’s abortion restrictions should be off-limits because of the Mississippi House’s role in laying the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court to upend abortion rights nationwide.
“The abortion issue has been an issue that the majority of the House has championed for the past decade,” said Republican Rep. Fred Shanks of Brandon. “The House was the force that overturned Roe vs. Wade. It was no one else. It was us. And I just don’t think we want to be messing with it.”

In 2018, Mississippi enacted a law, which originated in the House, that banned most abortions after 15 weeks. The state’s only abortion clinic challenged the law, and that became the case that the U.S. Supreme Court used in 2022 to overturn its landmark 1973 ruling that established a nationwide right to abortion.
Democratic Rep. Cheikh Taylor of Starkville said the proposal deprives people of their right to weigh in on a critical issue, and direct democracy “shouldn’t include terms and conditions.”

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“Don’t let anyone tell you this is just about abortion,” Taylor said. “This is about a Republican Party who thinks they know what’s best for you better than you know what’s best for you. This is about control. So much for liberty and limited government.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, voters in seven states, including some controlled by Republicans, have backed access to abortion through statewide ballot initiatives.

Starting in the 1990s, Mississippi had a 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. Shanks said the resolution remedies that issue. He told reporters that House Republicans would not approve the resolution without the abortion exemption.

The proposal will head to the Senate, where its fate is less certain. During 2022 and 2023, the House and Senate disagreed on details for a new initiative process.

Responding to a question during a Capitol press forum on Jan. 8, Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, said he does not think legislators should tell voters what issues they can pursue initiatives on.

“If we’re going to do a ballot initiative that had enough people sign on it … then you ought to have a pretty clean ballot initiative,” Hosemann said. “I mean, if we’re doing one and you can’t do a ballot (initiative) on any of these things, then why are you doing it at all?”

In the opening weeks of this year’s legislative session, Hosemann replaced the chairman of the Senate committee that will likely consider the proposal. The former chairman, Republican John Polk of Hattiesburg, blocked a similar proposal last year. The new chairman, Republican David Parker of Olive Branch, said he would consider a proposal this year.

Under the resolution, an initiative would need more than 150,000 signatures in a state with about 1.9 million voters, according to Shanks.

In 2011, Mississippi voters rejected a “personhood” initiative that would have defined life as beginning at fertilization. The measure was promoted as a way to eliminate abortion rights, and its failure surprised many in the deeply conservative state.