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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Raising the bar for constitutional amendments could stop action on Missouri abortion ban

Mary Maschmeier, the founder and president of Defenders of the Unborn, celebrates the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v Wade as Ritika Chand-Berfeld, of Webster Groves, protests
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Maschmeier, founder and president of Defenders of the Unborn, based in St. Charles, celebrates the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, while Ritika Chand-Berfeld, of Webster Groves, protests against it on June 24.

If voters back a plan to require that constitutional amendments receive at least 60% of the vote to pass, it would apply to proposed amendments to repeal or strengthen the state’s abortion ban, according to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

And while a change to amendment voting isn’t likely until August 2024, both sides of the abortion issue are already talking about how it might affect their plans.

Since the end of the 2022 election cycle, there’s been increased talk from proponents of abortion rights about placing a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot that would repeal a 2019 law prohibiting abortions in the state with the exception of medical emergencies. Supporters of strengthening the ban also may try to get a constitutional amendment passed.

State Rep. Emily Weber said on a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcastthat proponents of repealing the abortion ban are in discussions about what language should be in the proposal.

“A lot of conversations are happening now about what this looks like,” said Weber, D-Kansas City.

If either plan has enough signatures, it could be up for a vote in November 2024 — which will be a high-turnout election with a presidential race, Missouri’s governorship and a U.S. Senate seat all on the ballot.

Missouri Republicans, such as incoming state Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, also want to make changes to the ballot initiative petition process. They could include requiring constitutional amendments to receive 60% of the vote in an election to pass, as opposed to the current simple majority.

Ashcroft said if voters approve a measure in August 2024 raising the requirement to 60%, any constitutional change on the November ballot — such as a measure repealing the abortion ban or making it stronger — would need to reach that threshold.

“Under the Missouri Constitution, a constitutional change that receives the requisite affirmative votes goes into effect 30 days after the election,” Ashcroft said.

But Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City-based attorney with extensive experience in legal work on ballot initiatives, said there’s some ambiguity around the impact of a threshold change on November 2024 constitutional proposals.

“Bottom line, if the General Assembly tries that and the people vote for it, we are likely in for a court fight,” Hatfield said.

Would the people vote for it?

There’s no guarantee that voters will approve proposals that make the initiative petition process more difficult.

“There are plenty of examples of Missourians approaching the initiative petition process as a valuable tool,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City. “And many of the folks that I've talked with see it as a real treasure. I would be inclined to say that voters would not support the proposed changes.”

Sam Lee, a lobbyist with Campaign Life Missouri and a supporter of the 2019 abortion ban, noted that Arkansas voters soundly rejected a plan raising the percentage needed to pass statutory changes or constitutional amendments.

And such ideas have often drawn criticism from right-of-center political figures, who fear raising the bar to pass constitutional amendments could backfire on Republicans if a Democratic governor is elected and makes it harder to pass GOP priorities through the legislature.

“If the voters think that the General Assembly or Jefferson City is trying to prevent them from getting stuff passed that they want, then it’s going to fail,” said Lee, while adding that he doesn’t have an opinion on efforts to alter the initiative petition process.

Raising the threshold could affect the efforts of Lee and others who are pushing for a measure that says the Missouri Constitution does not provide a right to an abortion. That’s widely seen as a protection for the 2019 law against litigation.

Lee also noted that raising the threshold to approve constitutional amendments is not the only idea out there to alter the initiative petition process. Some lawmakers, for instance, have proposed requiring groups to collect a certain number of signatures in all of the state’s congressional districts.

“I'm not sure that there's a consensus among Republicans in general on some of these things because there's been multiple ideas out there,” Lee said. “And none of them have really gotten much traction.”

Both Arthur and state Sen. Doug Beck said they expect increased intensity over changes to the initiative petition process when legislators return to Jefferson City early next year. But Beck, D-Affton, added that there’s some irony that it would only take a majority vote to raise the bar to pass constitutional amendments.

“There's going to be two parts to this fight. One will be getting it through the legislature,” Beck said. “And two will be when it goes to the voters. Now, the question I have is: If we're going to do that, then shouldn't that be a 60% vote also? Maybe that's an amendment I put on there.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.