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After judges rewrite GOP lawmakers' ballot language, Missouri House votes to strip their power

After judges rewrite GOP lawmakers' ballot language, Missouri House votes to strip their power

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Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program debate

House Speaker Rob Vescovo speaks during debate on the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program” on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (screengrab)

JEFFERSON CITY — After Missouri courts last year threw out and rewrote the Legislature’s ballot language for a proposed change to the state constitution, Republican lawmakers moved Wednesday night to strip judges’ power to rewrite ballot language.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, would bar judges from rewriting ballot language for proposed constitutional or statutory changes written by the Legislature.

The House gave the measure first-round approval Wednesday night.

The effort follows rulings from two courts in the run-up to the November election that tossed the Legislature’s wording for a question that dramatically changed the way Missouri was to draw state legislative districts after the 2020 U.S. Census.

In addition to the redistricting changes, which repealed the “nonpartisan state demographer” position voters approved in 2018, the measure banned lobbyist gifts.

That portion was seen as more popular than the redistricting changes, and lawmakers led with it.

But Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce tossed and rewrote the summary. She ruled in August the language was “insufficient and unfair” and violated Missouri law. The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District also rejected the GOP lawmakers’ language and made additional edits before it appeared on the ballot.

After the revisions, the redistricting question, Amendment 3, narrowly passed with 51% support.

State law requires ballot summaries to be “a true and impartial statement of the purposes of the proposed measure” and “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.”

Wiemann argued lawmakers were preventing judges from “legislating from the bench,” because writing the language is the Legislature’s job. If judges decide the ballot language is unconstitutional, they can reject it but not rewrite it.

“I think that we do a pretty good job of passing legislation,” he said. “I think people are smart enough to be able to read the ballot language that we put in there.”

But Democrats said the proposal would make it easier for partisan language to make its way onto the ballot.

“We’re trying to make democracy accessible for people, and when we allow a supermajority to dictate the language that is on these ballot initiatives, we do a disservice” to constituents, said Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City.

The legislation is House Bill 850.

Wednesday’s vote followed a separate effort earlier in the day making it harder for citizens to change the state constitution.That process, which requires a simple majority for passage, has been used to legalize medical marijuana, expand Medicaid and enact new ethics standards.

If the legislation, which was given first-round approval on Wednesday, passes both legislative chambers and wins approval from a simple majority of voters, it would require support from two-thirds of voters in order for a proposed constitutional amendment to succeed.

Instead of leading with that, GOP lawmakers, in ballot language approved Wednesday night, are leading with a sentence saying that only citizens can vote in elections — something the state constitution already addresses.

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