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Government, Politics & Issues

Two controversial initiative petition drives fail

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Wherever workers appeared to gather signatures for the initiative petition to bar state affirmative programs in Missouri, chances are that someone from the WeCAN organization was  standing by with a counter-argument against the petition.

This unusual strategy for defeating a petition before it gets on the ballot apparently succeeded.

Organizers of the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative announced over the weekend that they lacked sufficient signatures to get their anti-affirmative action proposal on the ballot. They had gathered 170,000 signatures -- more than the 140,000 to 150,000 that were needed, according to the AP. But thousands of signatures are typically disqualified.

That proposed constitutional amendment was one of two major initiatives that won't be on the state ballot because sponsors missed Sunday's deadline for submitting initiative petitions. The other was a proposed constitutional amendment to bar some types of embryonic stem-cell research, which had just garnered constitutional protection under Amendment 2 in 2006.

Sponsors of that initiative say court maneuvers, rather than an inability to collect valid signatures, thwarted their effort to put the issue on the ballot.

Backers of both the civil-rights and stem-cell proposals said they would try again in 2010. Both groups also assailed Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, charging that her delay in approving the ballot language prevented backers from collecting sufficient signatures.

Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says proponents of these measures were being honest as far as saying why their initiatives didn't meet the ballot deadline. But he says the explanations don't tell the whole story. Jones says the initiative petition process is facing new efforts that focus on keeping items off the ballot. 

"They are saying, 'Let's not wait until it gets on the ballot; let's try to stop it now.' That's the easiest way to defeat it," Jones says. In the case of the civil rights initiative, Jones said it didn't hurt to have a friendly secretary of state "who was not willing to accept ballot language that won in California and Michigan."

Aside from California (where Ward Connerly rose to prominence with a measure designed to overturn affirmative action), Washington and Michigan already have approved anti-affirmation action ballot measures. Similar measures are being sought in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

State campaign finance reports for April 15 showed that Connerly's group, the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative Committee, had raised $160,000 and spent $153,000. All but $250 came from a Sacramento CA organization called the American Civil Rights Committee Super Tuesday for Equal Rights. Most of the money went to National Ballot Access of Lawrenceville, GA, to pay workers to gather signatures. During that period, Tim Asher, leader of the Missouri campaign, was reimbursed about $4,000 for travel.

What was unique about the Missouri fight over the measure funded by Connerly was the group formed to defeat it, Jones said. WeCAN is a coalition of community, labor, religious, education and business groups. WeCAN collected $77,500, and it spent $21,900, according to its campaign finance report for April 15. The spending was mainly for canvassing and travel. All the contributions apparently came from individuals and organizations in Missouri.

Among those disappointed that the anti-stem-cell initiative didn’t get on the ballot is Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County. “First it was challenged by the secretary of state,” he notes. “The language (approved for the ballot) was indefensible in terms of what the petition was trying to accomplish.” Because the issue ended up in the Missouri Court of Appeals, Lembke said proponents “didn’t have time to collect signatures. It had nothing to do with money. We just didn’t have time. I was very disappointed because people who we are against have really dictated the discussion about the direction of research.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis provided the elephant's share of money to Cures Without Cloning, the group behind the petition drive. The group received $27,545 for the period ending April 15. Of that amount, $25,000 came from the archdiocese. 

On the other hand, opponents of the measure said they acted to keep in place the constitutional amendment that forbade state lawmakers to curtail any stem cell research allowed by federal law. 

By the same token, opponents of the Connerly-inspired measure said they were motivated to act because the proposal amounted to ending affirmative action. In a statement, WeCAN said affirmative action was the best way to create “an equal playing field for women and racial minorities.”

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