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Government, Politics & Issues

Despite challenges, groups already launching initiative-petition drives for 2014

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 The dust was still settling from the 2012 election cycle when Aaron Malin was already eyeing the next one.

Malin is the executive director of Missourians for Equality, a Kirksville-based group seeking to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s nondiscrimination statutes. Malin requested permission from the secretary of state's office on Nov. 7 to circulate his group's petition in the hopes of getting a  public vote in 2014.

"It’s something that we believe needs to happen," Malin said. "And now is the right time because we believe the tide has turned.”

The move on its face may seem premature, given that the election is almost two years away. But Missourians for Equality may need all the time it can to get, as only a fraction of the ballot items submitted during the past two years made it on to the Nov. 6 ballot.

According to Secretary of State Robin Carnahan’s office, 143 different initiative petitions were submitted for circulation for the 2012 election. (Worth noting: Many of the 143 petitions were different versions of the same issue.) Only two made it to the Nov. 6 ballot. Three other ballot issues were placed on the August or November ballot by the Missouri General Assembly.

That history demonstrates just how difficult it is to get an issue on the ballot; it isn’t even close to automatic. The requirements are different -- but still onerous -- for placing new laws and new constitutional amendments on the ballot.

To get a change in state law on the ballot, organizers must gather signatures from registered voters equal to 5 percent of the total votes cast in the prior governor's election from six of the state's eight congressional districts. The requirement for getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot is even higher -- 8 percent of that standard.

Reaching that threshold is both time consuming and expensive. Brad Ketcher, a St. Louis attorney experienced in handling ballot initiatives, told the Beacon earlier this year that the startup costs for initiative petitions often go north of $1 million. Those costs go mainly to pay signature collectors and attorneys fighting legal challenges.

Still, the initiative petition route may be the only logical one for Malin’s group. As Malin noted, the GOP-controlled legislature hasn’t been receptive to adding sexual orientation to antidiscrimination statutes. And that’s not likely to change now that Republicans have super-majorities in both the Missouri House and Missouri Senate, he said.

Missouri voters haven't been very receptive to gay rights issues either, overwhelmingly approving in 2004 a ban against same-sex marriage.

But Malin believes times may be changing.

“I am optimistic about our chances of putting this on the ballot,” Malin said. “I think that last Tuesday will be seen as a historic day in the LGBT equality movement .... I believe that the momentum on these issues nationwide has shifted so dramatically in the last year that things like anti-discrimination have simply become inevitable and recognized as appropriate by most people.”

Taking the initiative

In recent years, interest groups facing substantial legislative opposition to their agenda have turned to initiative petitions. That was the case in 2010 with a measure to overhaul regulations on dog breeding as well as this year's unsuccessful effort to boost cigarette taxes.

Given legislative inaction, several municipalities – including St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Kirksville, University City, Olivette, Clayton and Richmond Heights – have already passed ordinances barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But that doesn't mean, says Malin, that state anti-discrimination laws are unneeded.

The initiative says that the measure “shall not be construed to require any religious denomination or any officiant acting as a representative of a religious denomination to take any action that places a substantial burden on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Malin's group may not be only one that may be thinking ahead. The Kansas City Star reported earlier this week that a group called Save Missouri Jobs started a TV ad campaign warning of fallout from Kansas' decision to lower personal and business taxes. The Star noted the group has ties to retired financer Rex Sinquefield, who earlier bankrolled an unsuccessful effort to eliminate the state's income tax and replace it with a higher sales tax.

That proposed tax change didn't make it to the ballot this time; Sinquefield said earlier this year he may try again in 2014. A spokesman for the group didn't return a call from the Beacon, but told the Kansas City Business Journal that the ads aren't tied to a specific proposal.

One bill that could have curtailed the flood of petitions was legislation that included a provision requiring a petitioner to submit at least 1,000 sponsoring signatures during the initial stages. That bill, by state Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, was introduced but didn't pass this year. 

Secretary of State-elect Jason Kander said last week that at this point, he has no specific changes he would like to make to the initiative petition process, adding he would examine “anything that will aid the office in representing Missourians in a nonpartisan and fair way.”

By the numbers

Malin says he hopes to enlist volunteers to collect the needed number of signatures -- and avoid the high cost of paying for signature collectors. 

“We need approximately 500 volunteers in the state who could dedicate about three hours a month to gathering signatures. So we think that’s a very reasonable role for an individual to fill – three hours a month for approximate a year. We can find 500 people who can fit that role. We’ve already found a couple hundred of them and we haven’t even started looking all that hard yet.”

John Patty, a political science professor at Washington University, said it may difficult for groups with narrow aims to use volunteers. That's especially the case in a state like Missouri that require a "geographic dispersion" of signatures.

But he added that doesn't mean such a route is impossible.

Patty says that social media may make it "a lot easier to overcome the previous hurdles with regard to coordination and getting six out of eight districts to have enough signatures." He adds that "presumably you have at least 200 to 300 Facebook friends that you can use to find people."

Patty also said the successes of initiatives to legalize gay marriage and marijuana may bring changes the playing field for 2014.

"The gay marriage successes probably have reinvigorated a lot of interest in using this route," Patty said. "Prior to this time, they had never won. So it will be interesting in two years how much we see both marijuana and gay marriage [as initiative petitions]. They push more at the polls because I think it will be easier to get sort of moderate supporters fired up about the chance it would work."

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