By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - Mississippi's initiative process was adopted in the early 1990s as a way for people to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the election ballot.
But the process has been rarely used, and now questions have arisen about how it works and even if Mississippians still have the right of initiative.
The questions come from Senate Judiciary A Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Smurall, who is the sponsor of a new initiative on voter identification. He has asked the Hinds County Chancery Court for a ruling on how the initiative process works.
Since the process was adopted more than a decade ago, only two initiative proposals have been placed on the ballot. Both failed. This is the second time that a voter identification initiative has been tried.
Mississippi's initiative process is not used often because of its burdensome restrictions, such as requiring the petition-gatherers to be residents of the state.
Section 273 of the Mississippi Constitution sets up the initiative process. As part of that process, a person must gather the signatures of 12 percent of the total voters in the last gubernatorial election - somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 signatures.
The only problem is that "the signatures...from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth of the total number of signatures."
When the initiative process was placed in the Constitution, Mississippi had five congressional districts. But the state lost a district after the 2000 Census.
The question now: Do initiative supporters have to gather one-fourth of the signatures from each of the current congressional districts or one-fifth from the old districts? Or has the change in congressional districts rendered the initiative process invalid in Mississippi?
Fillingane believes the state still has an initiative process, but is not sure whether he should gather signatures based on the five old districts or the four new ones.
That is why he is asking a Hinds County chancellor to rule on the issue before he goes to the trouble of gathering signatures.
"I don't care which way we do it," Fillingane said. "I just want to know the rules up front."
The Attorney General's Office has issued an official opinion, in response to an inquiry from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. It says "signatures must come from the last five-district congressional plan which was in effect prior to the adoption of the current four-district plan. It would be mathematically impossible to satisfy the requirements... using just four districts."
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, chair of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee, questions whether the state still has an initiative process.
Reynolds said it is not unusual for circumstances to change to make laws obsolete and no longer applicable.
"I have read the Constitution," Reynolds said. "...You are bound by what it says. If you are a strict constructionist how can you come out any other way?"
He said the Constitution would have to be changed to make the initiative process valid again. Under the current language in the Constitution, he said it is mathematically impossible to successfully complete the process.
"The old districts do not exist," he said.
Reynolds and Fillingane have both been involved in the legislative process over voter ID. The issue has been debated for years in the Legislature and has passed the Senate several times, only to die in the House.
This year Reynolds had worked to craft a compromise that included not only voter ID, but other election issues, such as early voting. But Fillingane was among a group of Republican senators who killed that compromise effort in the Senate, though Fillingane was later part of an unsuccessful effort to revive that proposed compromise.
Fillingane said he opposed part of the compromise, such as a provision allowing early voting.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or email@example.com.