Missouri Voters To Decide Amendments On Early Voting, Teacher Tenure And Sex Crime Trial Rules
Missouri voters have four constitutional amendments on the November ballot. The amendments cover a wide array of issues, ranging from early voting to the admissibility of prior sex crimes, teacher tenure and the governor's power over the state budget.
Amendment 2, which began as House Joint Resolution 16, would make it easier to prosecute sex crimes committed against children. It would also allow evidence of prior criminal acts to be admissible during the trial phase in cases where the defendant is charged with a sex crime against someone younger than 18.
Currently, juries can hear about a defendant's prior offenses only during the sentencing phase of a trial. That's due to a 2007 Missouri Supreme Court ruling, State v. Ellison, in which use of propensity evidence (prior criminal acts by a defendant) was declared unconstitutional. After the ruling, lawmakers began sponsoring bills and resolutions aimed at restoring the use of propensity evidence, resulting in last year's passage of HJR 16/Amendment 2.
Eric Zahnd, prosecuting attorney for Platte County, is one of the proposal's most vocal supporters. "Missouri is probably the most restrictive state in the nation, in terms of allowing juries to know the full truth about what a prior sex offender has done to other children before the case that is (at that moment) before the jury," Zahnd said.
The proposal would also include evidence of past criminal sexual activity in cases where the defendant was not convicted or not charged with a crime. It's also being actively opposed by two different groups.
"The danger is that people are going to be convicted not based on what evidence they have that relates to the charge, but more so the fact that they've been convicted of something similar before, or accused of something similar before," said Kevin Curran, who heads the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense. "We see that as a big problem."
The measure is also opposed by the Missouri Chapter of the ACLU. Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman issued a brief statement on Amendment 2:
"Tampering with the Missouri Constitution to take away constitutional protections that are a traditional and necessary part of our criminal justice process goes against American ideals. The Missouri Supreme Court has repeatedly reminded us: in America we are tried only on the crime charged. Missourians should avoid the temptation to allow evidence of uncharged crimes to be presented at trial, simply to demonstrate a propensity or tendency to commit a crime."
Supporters of Amendment 2 have not raised a lot of money so far. Their campaign committee, Protect Missouri Children, has taken in $16,475.00 and only spent only $22, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Amendment 6 would allow for early voting from Wednesday through Friday two weeks before Election Day, then from Monday through Wednesday one week before Election Day. People could vote in person only during "regular business hours," and it does not allow early voting on Saturday or Sunday. The League of Women Voters' Missouri chapter has come out in opposition to the proposal. Its president, Elaine Blodgett, says it’s not fair that voters could vote early only on weekdays during business hours.
"If you're going to have early voting, you want it for times when people can actually get there to vote," Blodgett said. "Saturdays and even Sundays, although most people don't want to work on Sundays, but extended hours, or maybe a couple of evening hours, would help an awful lot of people get to the poll(s)."
Democrats in the Missouri House also opposed House Joint Resolution 90, now Amendment 6, for the same reasons. They favored a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative that would have created a six-week early voting period that would have included weekends and early evening hours. In addition, Secretary of State Jason Kander, an advocate for early voting, came out in opposition to HJR 90:
"I was encouraged when the legislature finally began to consider providing eligible Missourians with a more convenient way to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Unfortunately, it appears the legislative push for early voting was nothing more than a political game. By eliminating weekends and shortening the early voting period, the legislature has shown Missourians that this bill is simply a political strategy to counteract the citizen-driven early voting initiative petition."
State Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, sponsored the measure that became the proposed Constitutional Amendment 6. He says it's the better way to go.
"If you spread out a six-week period for early voting, including Saturdays and Sundays, the cost of that would have been tremendous to counties, because counties would have had to bear the cost of that," Dugger said, "whereas in the six-day (proposal), the state will be liable for the cost."
Dugger also said that if voters approve the measure, spending money on early voting would have to be authorized each year by both the legislature and the governor.
Free and Fair Election Fund is the committee that's backing Amendment 6. Figures from the Missouri Ethics Commission show that the committee has so far raised $113,000, with $103,000 of it coming from three donors during the month of July. The committee has spent $65,575.01 as of Sept. 30th.
Missouri Early Voting Fund was the the campaign committee initially created for the citizen-sponsored early voting measure that was not placed on the ballot. According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, it is currently in debt by $258,531.40. The committee has received $745,450 total for the November election, but the Ethics Commission shows that the committee has spent $1,003,981.40.
Then there's the strange case of Amendment 3, which would base teacher tenure in K-12 schools on student performance instead of seniority. Last month, its backers officially suspended their campaign to convince Missouri voters to pass it, over what appeared at the time to be a lack of support from likely voters. Even though the campaign to change the way teachers are evaluated and retained abruptly shut down in September, opponents of Amendment 3 say they're not taking their foot off the gas.
"The amendment is still on the ballot, the language is still on the ballot and people have the opportunity to vote yes," said Mike Sherman, spokesman for Amendment Three opposition group Protect Our Local Schools.
If voters approve Amendment 3, teachers in Missouri would be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted and paid primarily using student data. It also would put a three-year limit on teacher contracts and prevent teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining on the design of teacher evaluations or how they're used. Teacher evaluations in Missouri must currently align with seven core principles
Sherman said their plan didn't change when Teach Great -- a group that campaigned for Amendment 3 and was bankrolled by $1.6 million from St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield – closed up shop and immediately took down its website.
"They've already talked to a lot of people collecting signatures to get this on the ballot," Sherman said of Teach Great. "If it wasn"t on the ballot, no problem, but the language on the ballot is really bad. It"s a really, really bad amendment."
In particular, Sherman highlighted that Amendment 3 would require that teacher evaluations be based primarily on student data.
"You don’t have teachers anymore; you have test administrators," Sherman said. "It takes weeks, and weeks and weeks of class time to prepare for standardized tests."
In contrast, Teach Great has said Amendment 3 would promote greater accountability and higher student achievement by making sure the best teachers were in Missouri classrooms. Kate Casas -- who was a spokesperson for Teach Great -- told St. Louis Public Radio in August that a study from Washington, D.C., showed that using student test scores to measure growth resulted in strong academic achievement.
James Shuls, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said adding on to the state's constitution is the wrong way to carry out the changes listed in Amendment 3. He said that approach would make it hard to tweak statewide policy on how teachers are evaluated and retained in the future.
"You would want these types of measures set more at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education level rather than the constitution," Shuls said.
Shuls is also a fellow at the Show Me Institute, but he said he doesn’t speak for the Sinquefield-backed think tank that advocates for market-based approaches in a range of policy areas. On his personal blog he lays out a list of what he writes are bad arguments against Amendment 3. Among them is the belief that "quantifiable student performance data" automatically means standardized tests.
Shuls said under the amendment a school district could develop its own test to give students at the beginning and end of a school year.
"Let's say all the fifth grade math teachers in the district give this test at the beginning of the year, this test at the end of the year, that's quantifiable student data."
Sherman, on the other hand, said there in no ambiguity about what is meant by "student performance data."
"To-may-to, to-mah-to, student performance data is standardized testing," Sherman said.
Though Sherman insisted he's only focused on Nov. 4, some observers say what happens at the ballot box could send a message to state lawmakers.
"If there's a big turnout and a big vote against this amendment, it may make Missouri state legislators more cautious about introducing small, more incremental version of this reform through the state legislature," said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Next: Amendment 10, which would limit the governor's power over the state budget.