Analysis: Amending Miss. Constitution isn't easy

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — It’s not easy to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the Mississippi ballot, and that might be a good thing. Some initiatives attempted the past two decades weren’t exactly the types of high-minded issues many people would expect to see embroidered into the fabric of state governance.

State recognition for people who make dentures? Drug testing for welfare recipients? Reviving a university mascot?

Not that the Mississippi’s 1890 constitution is a perfect document. Far from it. The constitution has included its share of silliness and meanness.

Its original Section 19 declared: “Human life shall not be imperiled by the practice of dueling.” The section was repealed in 1978, presumably decades after dueling had fallen from fashion.

Section 205 said: “A public school shall be maintained in each school district in the county at least four months during each scholastic year.” Voters repealed it in November 1987, long after folks had demanded more commitment to book learnin’.

Because the constitution was written by a nearly all-white delegation at a time that whites were suppressing black political power that existed during Reconstruction, it also originally had provisions that are eye-popping today. It had a $2 poll tax (a hefty sum for 1890) that was designed to suppress voting by poor people and minorities; a requirement for separate black and white schools; and a ban on interracial marriage. The three provisions were struck down nationally by U.S. Supreme Court rulings from other states and, in the case of the poll tax for federal elections, by a 1964 amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Mississippi legislators established the initiative process to let citizens propose constitutional amendments.

Anyone launching an initiative has a year to gather 89,285 signatures from registered voters, with at least 17,857 signatures coming from each of the five U.S. House districts Mississippi used during the 1990s — in the northeast, the Delta, the east-central part of the state, the southwest and the Gulf Coast.

Thirty-seven initiatives have been started since the early 1990s, but only five have reached the ballot.

Voters rejected term-limits initiatives in November 1995 and November 1999.

In November 2011, voters rejected one initiative and approved two.

Initiative 26, which failed, would’ve defined life as beginning when a human egg is fertilized.

Initiative 27, which was approved, would require each voter to show photo identification at the polls. It awaits scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, which vets Mississippi election changes to ensure they aren’t racially discriminatory.

Initiative 31, also approved, bans the government from taking property for private development projects.

Two petition drives ended in early June when an organizer (the same person was handling both) missed the deadline to submit signatures. Initiative 34 would’ve set the last day in February as African-American Day and Aug. 26 as Women’s Day. Initiative 35, the “Mississippi Citizen Act,” proposed several governing changes, including allowing citizens to introduce bills to the Legislature without needing a lawmaker as a sponsor.

The sponsor of Initiative 37, which would revive Colonel Reb as the University of Mississippi mascot, has already conceded he won’t get enough signatures to meet a July 9 deadline.

The initiative wasn’t just an honorary tip of the hat to the goateed old gentleman that the university retired several years ago to distance itself from Old South symbols. The proposed amendment would’ve required Colonel Reb’s image to appear “on every University of Mississippi logo, university athletic uniform and helmet, on every university internet page, on every university yearbook cover and title page, on every university letterhead, and on other specified university publications.”

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