Saturday, October 06, 2007

Petitions in Missouri

Petitions in Missouri

I just got back from the Missouri Library Association annual meeting. The Legislative Committee sponsored a program on TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) initiatives in Missouri. I've written about TABOR before. My personal feeling is that TABOR, as a legislative issue, is likely dead. While the Missouri House passed TABOR in the 2007 session, there doesn't seem to be any interest in taking it up in the Senate. As long as the Senate doesn't take up TABOR, that avenue is dead. The real potential problem is with citizen petitions to create TABOR as a constitutional amendment. Here's the problem.

The initiative petition process in Missouri (and maybe everyplace) is broken. Petitions are being collected, not by engaged citizens, but by people who are paid to collect signatures. These collectors may come from other states and may not be fully informed on the topic. Since they are paid by the signature, the petitioners will say anything to collect one more name. I've been told stories about petitioners harassing signers. In fact, our library had to have a petitioner arrested at one of our branches for her aggressive collection of signatures in violation of library policy.

My favorite story is a situation that occurred in Columbia, Missouri. Several people were being paid by the signature to gain signatures for two separate issues. The petitioners would ask people to sign the front of the clipboard to put a popular issue on the ballot. Then, the petitioner would flip the clipboard and ask for a second signature to "verify" the other signature. The problem? The "verification" signature was actually for the other petition and was for a less well accepted issue. People are being mislead about what they are signing. Mostly because the people who are collecting the signatures are doing so for money, not due to a dedication to the issue.

When people tried to put TABOR on the ballot in Missouri, petition signature collectors frequently told people that TABOR would allow people to vote on tax increases. One problem. The Missouri Constitution, through the Hancock Amendment (I and II) already assure that people are to vote on tax increases. Whether the collectors don't understand Missouri's constitution, or whether they are just saying something popular to gain more signatures is irrelevant. The point is that the process has been corrupted.

Something has to be done to put the initiative petition back in the hands of the people.

1 comment:

monica said...

Just a word from the other side of the initiative fence. I have worked as a paid signature gatherer is MO, and disagree with your view of the system as broken. By and large the people I have worked with and met in the field are fully aware of what they are collecting for and while personal politics may differ, collecting signatures is giving individual people a voice in the government. This is an important facet of the way laws can be formed here in MO. While the idea of volunteer activists is nice, volunteers are far less effective. Getting someone to volunteer to stand on a sidewalk for 8 hours, in the sun, facing a hostile public would be quite a feat. Besides the issue that most people don't have the time to volunteer even for causes that they do believe in and are aware of. Petitioners provide a valuable educational service, even if it only brings to public attention that something disagreeable may be on the ballot.
I have had the good fortune of working for a company with hourly pay and good social conscience. I realize that not all companies work under the same guidelines. The responsibility should be shared equally between the petitioner and voter. Petitioners have to answer for their integrity or lack there of, voters must take the time to read the initiative title.
The initiative petition process is valuable because of it gives even the most grass roots movements a voice and path to the ballot.