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Senate Democrats filibuster bill raising threshold to pass constitutional amendments

Kelly Dereuck
Springfield News-Leader

In the final week of the legislative session, the Missouri Senate is at a standstill as Senate Democrats filibuster legislation seeking to raise the threshold for passing citizen-led constitutional amendments.

, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, was brought before the Senate for debate at 2:40 p.m. Monday. Democrats quickly moved for the measure to be stripped of the House amendments or for a conference to be held between House and Senate members to find an agreeable compromise.

The hang-up causing this standstill is the addition of “ballot candy,” which Senate Democrats had negotiated to remove from the legislation during a filibuster before allowing it to pass in February. The Missouri House added the ballot candy back in, sending it back to the Senate for final approval.

Ballot candy is a term used to refer to items added to sweeten the petition and encourage voters to pass the measure. This language is generally placed first in the ballot summary language, obscuring the true meat of the petition.

In this instance, that language asks voters to bar noncitizens from voting in elections and prohibit foreign governments from donating to ballot initiative campaigns. Both of these issues are already guaranteed in state and federal law, respectively, meaning that they would effectively do nothing but reinforce what is already prohibited.

Senate Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo speaks at a press conference at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo points out that there may be several questions on the ballot for voters to decide upon this year, so having this deceptive language appear first isn’t a fair fight. Even if the legislature passes SJR 74, voters must still approve it for it to go into effect.

“People are gonna go from the first initiative to the second initiative to the third, and by the time they get to that six one, which this might be, they're going to be so exhausted,” Rizzo said. “They're gonna read the first line is gonna go, ‘Do you want non citizens voting in elections? Well, no. Right?’ Next thing you know, they have (voted) away their rights to participate in constitutional changes forever.”

The true goal of this legislation is to raise the threshold for passing citizen-led constitutional amendments through the ballot initiative process. Currently, petitions require only a simple majority of voters to pass, but if voters approve this measure, constitutional amendments would require a simple majority of voters, plus a majority of voters in five of the state’s eight congressional districts.

As of noon on Tuesday, the filibuster had been going on for more than 21 hours and it showed no signs of stopping soon without an agreement to remove the ballot candy or hold a conference with members of the Missouri General Assembly to negotiate a compromise.

“It is the reality that the bill before us in its current form is not one that we're willing to sit down on,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur.

State Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, speaks to reporters on Feb. 8, 2024.

Proponents of the measure argue that it will give more weight to rural voters, as many constitutional amendments often campaign heavily in metro areas of the state, gaining more votes in heavily populated areas of the state.

Opponents say that this destroys the principle of “one person, one vote” that American democracy is built upon, by unfairly allowing a small number of rural voters to tank an otherwise popular petition.

“The underlying issue, which is basically undoing one person, one vote, making sure that every Missourians vote counts equally in our state, that's an unpopular idea,” Arthur said. “To move away from that so that some Missourians votes count more than others, that is a deeply unpopular idea.”

Debates about this legislation have consumed much of the 2024 legislative session, as members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus have made this a priority and refused to allow other legislation or gubernatorial appointments to proceed until it had progressed through the Senate.

In a press conference last week following the passage of the state budget, state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a member of the Missouri Freedom Caucus, was asked about removing ballot candy to find a compromise, which did not seem like an option the group was open to hearing.

“No, we're not gonna strip the ballot candy off,” Koenig said.

More:Initiative petitions are the topic of much debate in Missouri’s legislature. Here's why

That leaves few options for the final week of the legislative session in the Senate. If no compromise can be found, either the Democrats will run out the clock on the time left or Senate leadership will have to gather support from at least 18 members of the chamber to move the previous question, or PQ, a procedural move used often in the House to shut down debate.

“We have an assurance from the former leader that we will stay on IP until either the PQ is used or we finish it without a PQ or session ends,” Koenig said. “Those are the three options.”

The PQ is rarely used in the Senate, and during the extended filibuster, the Democrats said using that measure would have repercussions that last far into the next legislative session.

Senate Floor Leader Cindy O'Laughlin speaks at a press conference at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

When the move was suggested in a House committee meeting in March, Democrats shut down the Senate with a filibuster for a day in protest. Senate Majority Floor Leader Cindy O’Laughlin referred to the PQ as the “nuclear option,” according to , saying as of Sunday evening she had not decided whether it would be used for this legislation.

While the filibuster drags on and the end of session is quickly approaching, Arthur laments the fact that other bills will not be passed until Republicans are willing to find a compromise, or uphold the compromise that they made to remove the ballot candy the first time the bill was passed in the Senate.

“There are other important legislative items that I know people are eager to get to this year, or for the remainder of the week, so this gives an opportunity for the body to find some way to move forward on this issue,” Arthur said. “Hopefully we get to other important business before the session concludes.”