Initiative success linked to anti-establishment mood

JACKSON – In 1998, Mississippians overwhelmingly approved a change to the Constitution that many believed would spell the death of the young initiative process in the state.
The change said that only in-state residents could circulate an initiative proposal to try to get an issue on the ballot for voters to decide.
And after the in-state residency requirement was approved, it appeared the fears might be correct: 19 initiatives were proposed, but all died for various reasons without making it to the ballot.
That changed this year.
Three proposals have garnered the required number of signatures of registered voters, 89,285, or 12 percent of the total vote in the last gubernatorial election.
And all three are slated to be on the 2011 November general election ballot, although the personhood proposal is being challenged in the courts.
Some say the reason the proposals succeeded this year is because of the political climate in which many citizens are upset with elected officials and are more apt to look for ways around the established process.
In other words, the same dynamics that gave rise to the Tea Party are likely fueling the renewed vigor in the state’s initiative process.
“I think people are frustrated with the political process,” said Les Riley of Pontotoc, sponsor of the personhood initiative, which defines life as beginning at fertilization.
“People don’t feel they have a voice. The initiative process gives them a voice.”
Before the 1998 change to the law, there had been two instances where enough signatures had been gathered to put an initiative proposal on the ballot. Both involved term limits and both failed.
In both instances, the sponsors contracted with out-of-state companies that used people who were paid for each signature they gathered.
A vast majority of legislators wanted to block the use of out-of-state, paid signature gatherers – some say because they did not want to have to deal with another effort to limit their terms.
At any rate, the Legislature passed by the required two-thirds margin the proposal to require the workers to be Mississippians.
It was then approved by a majority of voters, making a major change to the state’s initiative process, which had been put in place earlier that decade.
But on the three current initiatives, Mississippians had no trouble gathering the signatures.
“There was a tremendous amount of eagerness to sign the petitions,” said Riley, whose personhood initiative was run by volunteers.
Even though the process is difficult, it still provides a means to circumvent the traditional methods.
“Our initiative process is a very convoluted process compared to California where you can get just about any issue on the ballot,” said political scientist Marty Wiseman, head of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
Wiseman said people use that convoluted process “to say they don’t have faith in the legislative process or government in general. They don’t have faith in Washington and they don’t have faith in state government.
“It is an opportunity to say, ‘Listen to me.’”
Two of the initiatives – voter identification and the prohibition of taking private land for the use of another private entity – had been debated several years in the Legislature, but had been blocked from final passage at some point in the process each year.
Mississippi is generally regarded as a staunch anti-abortion state, where ideas such as the personhood proposal are viewed as popular.
“I think these are issues people have been wanting to vote on for sometime,” said Rep. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo. “I think people are fed up that for whatever reason they have not passed. Mississippi voters are taking the matters in their own hands and saying enough is enough.”
According to the website Ballotpedia, 23 states have some form of the initiative process. Only Illinois has had fewer initiatives reach the ballot than Mississippi through 2008.
California’s initiative process was approved in 1912; through 2008, some 325 proposals had reached the ballot in that state.
Oregon’s process is eight years older than California’s and has had six more proposals reach the ballot.
Mississippi has the youngest initiative process of those states, having adopted it in 1992.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby. harrison@djournal.com.

BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau