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MS GOP Seeks to Block Voters From Using Ballot Initiative for Abortion Rights

“It is almost like a dictatorship,” one Democratic lawmaker said in response to the GOP’s proposal.

The Mississippi State Capitol Building is pictured in Jackson, Mississippi.

Republican lawmakers in Mississippi are seeking to restore the state’s dormant ballot initiative system, with some major caveats — including a stipulation that would bar voters from pushing initiatives related to abortion policy.

From the 1990s until recently, Mississippi had a ballot initiative system that allowed state residents to vote on changes to state law or the state constitution if such proposals attained enough signatures from voters. In 2021, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that the text of the ballot initiative law rendered it unenforceable.

Previously, state residents had to reach a certain threshold of signatures from Mississippi’s five congressional districts for a proposal to be included on a ballot. But in 2000, the state lost one seat in Congress, making it impossible to secure the signatures needed from the five regions, the state’s highest court ruled.

Though Republicans have drafted legislation to restore the ballot initiative, their proposal would increase the signature limit and prohibit initiatives on the issue of abortion.

Senate Joint Resolution 533 was advanced by the House Constitution Committee on Tuesday. The resolution stipulates that 12 percent of the total number of registered voters in the state is needed for an initiative to move forward — a change from previous threshold requirements that were based on the number of votes in past elections for governor, which were lower than the registered voter total.

The new measure only allows voters to propose changes to state statutes, rather than changes to the state constitution, making it easier for the state legislature — which has been controlled by Republicans for decades — to undo a successful ballot outcome. The proposal also lets the state legislature effectively block successful initiatives by allowing lawmakers to refuse to fund policies if they disagree with voters’ preferences.

The restrictions put forward by Republicans have been widely condemned.

“Regardless of what the issue is, I think people should have the right to have it considered through the initiative process,” said Democratic state Rep. Bryant Clark. “It is almost like a dictatorship telling the people they have the right to speak except on this issue or that issue.”

Republicans likely included the restrictions in their proposal as an attempt to preserve the state’s strict abortion laws. After the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled decades-old federal abortion protections last summer — through a ruling in a case on a Missouri law banning abortions after 15 weeks — a trigger law in the state implemented a near-universal ban on the procedure.

Mississippi residents haven’t proposed ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights in the past, but a 2011 initiative that sought to restrict abortion was soundly defeated by voters. Since the federal Supreme Court upended abortion rights, six states have had elections on the issue of abortion. All six have resulted in the expansion of abortion rights or the reaffirmation of existing abortion protections in those jurisdictions.

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