Lawmakers Need to Fix Mississippi's Initiative Process

By Douglas Carswell
May 26, 2021

What a mess!  Last week Mississippi’s Supreme Court overturned the medical marijuana initiative that voters had overwhelmingly approved in November last year.

The ruling renders a democratic decision 1.3 million Mississippians helped make null and void.  Worse, the state Supreme Court ruled that the entire initiative process itself is ‘unworkable and inoperable’, meaning that we no longer have any meaningful form of direct democracy in the Magnolia state.

Irrespective of our own personal views about medical marijuana, I hope we can all agree that something has gone badly wrong when 70 percent of voters can vote for something, as they did for medical marijuana, but have their choice ignored. 

What went wrong?  

The problem is the process for triggering the initiative vote.  Our state constitution (Section 273) allows a popular vote to take place to amend the constitution if enough signatures are collected across each of the state’s five congressional districts.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Making sure that support for an initiative comes from across the state is perfectly sensible.  But there is one small flaw; our state only has four congressional districts, not five.  Mississippi has only had four since 2002, when we lost our fifth congressional seat – and our law makers never got around to updating the rules.

We should not blame the state supreme court for this fiasco.  They only interpret what the rules say.  Responsibility lies with our legislature, which over almost two decades failed to act to update the rule book.

Before coming to Mississippi, I co-founded Vote Leave, the official campaign that won the Brexit vote in Britain.  The Brexit vote is a powerful example of how ordinary folk can achieve real change.  It shows why citizen-led initiatives are essential.  

After a clear majority voted for Brexit, all kinds of efforts were made to try to overturn the result.  I know what it is like to have direct democracy opposed by those that don’t want change.  Today many Mississippians who voted last fall for initiative 65 will feel cheated.

While there needs to be a special session of the legislature to address the issue of medical marijuana, lawmakers should take their time when it comes to fixing the initiative process. It's something we need to study, hold hearings on and address in 2022. 

Mississippians only gained a right of initiative in the 1990s.  It now turns out that that right never actually existed for most of that time after all.  Our law makers need to get this right.  

Obviously there must be a workable process for gathering signatures to trigger initiatives.  But we should take this opportunity to ask if other improvements are needed to ensure that we have a system of direct democracy that actually works.

Is it, for example, healthy that popular votes are aimed at achieving amendments to the state constitution, rather than statutes?  Our state constitution sets out the basic rules by which the political game is played.  Rather than continually aiming to change those, might it be preferable if popular voters changed statutory law?

Under the current set of rules, when an initiative looks likely, our lawmakers have – in effect – an opportunity to try to doctor the question.  Should we make it harder for this to happen?

Last, but not least, should we insist – as some other states do – that initiatives are tax neutral, in order to avoid a situation in which Mississippians are encouraged to vote to be generous with someone else’s money?

Far from undermining the argument for giving people the power of initiative, the failure of our lawmakers to act over the past two decades shows precisely why citizen-led initiatives are essential.  We cannot simply leave politics to politicians.

This post was originally published in the Clarion Ledger and can be read here.


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