Mississippi Ruling Jeopardizes Pot, Medicaid, Voting Ballot Measures

By: - May 18, 2021 12:00 am

Mississippi voters approved a ballot initiative in November that legalized medical marijuana. The state Supreme Court last week threw out the new statute. Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press

A rollback of Mississippi’s voter-approved medical marijuana program continues a trend of ballot initiatives coming under attack in states across the country.

The Mississippi Supreme Court last week struck down the cannabis program approved by voters in November. The ruling also went further: It could dismantle the process by which voters can amend the state’s constitution.

After voters in several conservative-leaning states passed progressive ballot initiatives in November, Republican lawmakers in many of those states have attempted to limit the ballot initiative process for future elections by adding new hurdles to the signature-gathering and voting processes.

In Mississippi, the future of the ballot initiative process hangs on a technicality. The state’s constitution outlines a process for gathering signatures in the state’s five congressional districts. Three decades after that provision was written, the Magnolia State now has only four congressional districts because of population stagnation. A majority of state Supreme Court justices said the loss of a district means the ballot initiative process no longer functions as written.

The Mississippi ruling puts several upcoming ballot initiatives in limbo, including ones that would legalize recreational marijuana, expand Medicaid and allow early voting. The legislature might have to amend the ballot initiative process for it to be legally used in future elections.

Elsewhere, the GOP is raising overt barriers to ballot initiatives.

In South Dakota, Republican lawmakers who oppose a measure to expand Medicaid in the state voted in March to put a constitutional amendment on the June 22 primary ballot that would require initiatives to win 60% voter approval instead of a simple majority.

If approved, the higher vote requirement could apply to advocacy group Dakotans for Health’s Medicaid expansion initiative on the November ballot. Dakotans for Health sued Republican Secretary of State Steve Barnett, arguing that the higher threshold and its placement on a lower-turnout primary ballot would hurt their cause. The state Supreme Court unanimously rejected their plea earlier this month.

In Idaho, ballot initiative group Reclaim Idaho earlier this month sued the state after the Republican-held legislature approved a measure that limited the ballot initiative process. The group says the new law, which Republican Gov. Brad Little signed in April, violates Idaho voters’ rights by making the requirements to get an initiative on the ballot too burdensome.

The new law requires residents to gather signatures of at least 6% of voters from every one of the state’s 35 legislative districts. The previous statute required signatures from 18 districts. The new law came after more than 60% of voters approved a Medicaid expansion in 2018.

The ballot initiative tool is one of the only ways for progressive policies to garner success in Republican-run states. The initiatives have brought medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion to states where lawmakers were unlikely to approve those measures.

Republicans argue voters elected them to make laws through a more deliberative process, and they worry that the ballot initiative process opens state policy to the whims of deep-pocketed, out-of-state groups. Republican efforts to limit the ballot initiative process also come as the party attempts to curtail access to mail-in and early voting around the country.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.