Missouri voters are used to voting to change the state’s constitution, but in November they could take the first step to blowing it all up.
On Nov. 8, voters will be asked if they want to call a state constitutional convention. The ballot issue has garnered far less attention than other costly items, such as whether or not recreational marijuana is approved.
But it’s potentially the most important vote residents will take in this election and could trigger the first state constitutional convention in the United States in three decades.
For a century, the Missouri Constitution has required a vote every 20 years on holding a constitutional convention — a gathering with few rules that could lead to a complete rewrite of the constitution. Everything the convention proposes would be subject to a statewide ratification vote.
At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court seems determined to empower states — notably on abortion when it overturned Roe v. Wade in June – state constitutions are poised to take on greater prominence, increasingly becoming the place where rights and freedoms are won or lost. Missouri currently prohibits abortion in state law, not in its constitution.
The convention could bring big changes or small changes. It could be limited to a simple reorganization of the existing constitution, or eliminate entire sections that currently protect medical marijuana, ethical reforms, or the expansion of Medicaid, which currently covers nearly 200,000 people.
Missouri currently bans abortion in state law, but an even stricter ban on abortion — or restoration of the right to abortion — could be added to the constitution.
The convention would operate independently, with very little input from Republican Governor Mike Parson or the Missouri General Assembly. He would likely take over the Capitol in Jefferson City, meeting in the chambers of the House or Senate. Nothing limits the duration of the agreement.
A convention would offer Missouri the chance to fundamentally alter the basic pact governing the state, perhaps allowing liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans to make a big new deal in a politically polarized era.
Some fear that this simply opens the door to chaos.
“The constitutional convention could be here are some proposed amendments for the ballot. It could be, “we want to completely gut and remake the Missouri constitution.” I’m afraid it’s very complicated,” said Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican widely seen as a potential candidate for governor in 2024.
“We had some interesting concerns about how the special session would go,” Ashcroft said of the special tax legislative session that begins Wednesday. “Can you imagine how a constitutional convention would go?”
No campaign for the convention
No organized campaign, either in favor of a convention or against a convention, seems to exist.
Seth Bundy, a spokesman for the Missouri Senate Democrats, said the issue hasn’t received much attention. Kelli Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, only said the governor “supports the right to vote on any subject” when asked if he supports calling a convention.
Several people familiar with the issue of constitutional convention told The Star that the closest thing resembling a campaign came when the Show Me Institute held events and published essays about four years ago exploring the idea. of an agreement. Rex Sinquefield, the St. Louis political mega-donor, co-founded the institute and reportedly had the resources to mount a major campaign.
The absence of a campaign suggests that voters will reject a convention. The last time Missouri voted for one, in 2002, less than 35% of voters voted for it. Yet the current political environment is more unstable, making it difficult to completely negate this possibility.
“I imagine, just logistically, it would be very difficult in these polarized times to agree to a new constitution,” said Senator Lauren Arthur, Democrat of Kansas City.
Missouri last voted to call a convention in the early 1940s. It produced the constitution the state still uses today, although it has been amended several times. The successful vote to call the convention, held during World War II, came after a sustained campaign for a new constitution and amid a desire for political reform.
“The constitutional convention of the early 1940s had to do a lot with a reaction to what was seen as the political corruption of bosses such as Pendergast,” Gary Kremer, director of the State Historical Society of Missouri, said of the boss. of the Kansas City Democratic Party which maintained a stranglehold on local politics for much of the 1920s and 1930s.
There is no similar radical movement for a convention today, but calls for a convention have increased in recent years.
Those who support a convention — or are at least interested in the idea — say the constant backlog of constitutional amendments has bogged down the document and made it nearly unreadable in places. The amendments are often lengthy (the medical marijuana provisions alone are 7,600 words).
At the grassroots level, they say, the constitution has increasingly become a place for policies — like marijuana and Medicaid expansion — that should be general law. Democrats and others in recent years have offered amendments through initiative petitions as a way to circumvent the Republican-controlled legislature, to the growing frustration of conservatives. Some Republicans have responded by calling for restrictions that would make it harder to change the constitution.
“All the things we put in the constitution that look more like laws than constitutional provisions, the convention should determine how to deal with them,” said Jim Layton, former Missouri solicitor general under Democratic attorneys general Jay Nixon. and Chris. Koster.
Layton predicted that a convention would attempt to remove such provisions from the constitution. The convention would also address “big political issues of the day”, he said.
“They would debate abortion. They would debate school funding and the authority of school boards,” Layton said. “Almost everything we see in Missouri politics today would be a major convention issue.”
Dave Roland, director of litigation at the government-limited Missouri Freedom Center, said the 1940s convention helped streamline the constitution, which at the time had been in place since 1875. That constitution was 70 years old when it was revised; the current one is now 77 years old.
With the US Supreme Court’s decision overturning the federal abortion law, Roland predicted that the court will take a narrower view of the rights protected by the US Constitution. The result will be that the states will have more power, which will increase the need to focus on state constitutions.
“It becomes imperative for people who believe that certain individual liberties should be protected against the government … to explain to their courts how those liberties should be protected,” Roland said.
State Representative Peter Merideth, a Democrat from St. Louis, predicted that Republicans would use a convention to try to reverse the Medicaid expansion and undo other Democratic-backed constitutional provisions. Although he acknowledged that a convention would offer opportunities, it presents “a lot of risks”.
“There is a part of me, of course, that dreams of rewriting our Constitution. I think there are a lot of things we could improve on in our state constitution,” Meredith said. “However, looking at the political realities and how appointed delegates would come in, it also really opens the door to a lot of problems.”
Few rules for the convention
If voters approve a convention, it will be made up of delegates from across the state. Delegates could not be current legislators and, with minor exceptions, could not be public servants.
Two delegates would be elected from each of the 34 state senate districts. Each political party would nominate a candidate and the two with the most votes would be seated. In practice, most districts would likely elect one Republican delegate and one Democratic delegate, but in theory a third-party candidate could win if they come in 2nd place.
An additional 15 delegates, nominated by petition, would be chosen in a statewide election. In the 1940s, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a compromise list of delegates at large. Today, the fight would likely be hotly contested as it would most likely determine which party controls the convention.
Parson would proclaim the start of the convention, which would meet in Jefferson City. The constitution requires that “the facilities of the legislative chambers” be made available to delegates, who would be paid $10 a day.
A quorum of a majority of delegates would be required for the conduct of business and any proposed amendment or change to the constitution would require the approval of a majority of delegates. But there are few rules beyond that.
Delegates can operate as they see fit and choose the officers they want. One of the first major hurdles of any convention would be simply establishing the rules and choosing a president or other officer to preside over the proceedings.
Like the legislature, the convention could form committees but is not obligated to do so. When the 1943 convention began, it formed 26 committees. According to a 2018 convention essay written by Justin Dyer for the Show Me Institute, proposals were developed in committee and then submitted to the full convention for votes.
Dyer, former director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, said state constitutional conventions have fallen out of favor.
“It’s just something we don’t do,” said Dyer, who now directs the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas-Austin.
The last state constitutional convention was held in Louisiana in 1992, wrote John Dinan, a professor at Wake Forest University and one of the leading experts on state constitutions, in a July article in the Journal of PolicyHistory.
Voters fear opening a “Pandora’s box”, he writes.
The Star’s Kacen Bayless contributed reporting