When Mississippi lawmakers grudgingly created an initiative process in the 1990s, they tried to make it tough for citizen-led petitions to get on the ballot.
One rule designed to be somewhat of a hurdle required that the signatures on the petitions be evenly divided among the state’s five congressional districts existing at that time.
The authors of the constitutional amendment establishing the initiative process apparently didn’t consider what might happen if Mississippi were to lose one of its congressional districts, which it promptly did following the 2000 Census.
Until recently, that wasn’t a major issue, at least as far as conducting petition drives was concerned. An attorney general’s opinion said that petitioners should continue using the five former congressional districts as their guideline, and that’s the guideline the secretary of state has followed in certifying petitions.
Once it appeared, however, that Mississippi voters might approve an initiative to legalize medical marijuana, the discrepancy between current and former districts became a big deal. Days before voters overwhelming approved the initiative, one of its opponents, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, filed a lawsuit to have the medical marijuana petition invalidated on this technicality. The case is set to be argued before the state Supreme Court in April.
Meanwhile, there is an effort in the Legislature to clear up the confusion for future petitions. A proposal in the Senate would change the number of districts for petition-gathering from five to four.
That would be an improvement, but a better idea has been suggested: Require that signatures be gathered evenly by whatever number of congressional districts exist at the time. That way, the process would automatically adapt if Mississippi were to regain a congressional district or to lose another one.
That’s the change lawmakers should ask voters to approve. Better to fix the problem once and for all.