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‘They Don’t Trust The People’: Lawmakers Want To Weaken Voter Power, McDaniel Warns

Sen. Chris McDaniel's side profile is visible as he listens to someone ask a question, the image of an American flag is visible in the background behind him
“My position is we should adopt the referendum language because our bosses have indicated that’s what they want,” Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Jones County conservative, told the Mississippi Free Press on May 21. “And you’ve got this group out there that seems to claim they have this inherent right to circumvent the will of the people. And technically, that may be accurate, but that does circumvent the point of our process.” Photo by Ashton Pittman

State leaders are considering the prospect of a special session to repair Mississippi’s ballot initiative law after the state Supreme Court nullified it earlier this month in a decision that also killed the voter-approved medical-marijuana law. But even if lawmakers come to the rescue to quell widespread voter anger, some will use the opportunity to weaken direct democracy in the Magnolia State, one Jones County Republican is warning.

“There’s obviously an element within the Legislature that doesn’t like the ballot-initiative process, and you’re starting to hear these rumblings right now—they’re saying it’s too easy,” Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville told the Mississippi Free Press on Friday. “But what they’re really saying is they don’t trust the people. And when politicians don’t trust the people, that’s a problem. So they’re going to do everything in their power to deflect and circumvent the legislation.”

In its ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court said that Initiative 65, which created the medical-marijuana law after voters overwhelmingly approved it, could not have been legally placed on the ballot due to a technicality in the 1992 ballot-initiative law. 

The law requires petitioners to collect signatures from five congressional districts in order to get an issue on the ballot. But because the state lost its fifth congressional district after the 2000 Census, it is now impossible for citizens to meet the law’s requirements and put an issue on the ballot, the court determined.

Lawmakers could simply fix the law by modifying it to reflect that the state currently has four congressional districts—or by wording it so that the requirements automatically adjust to a change in congressional representation. But McDaniel says the temptation will be too strong for some legislators who would like to reserve more control over state laws for themselves.

“It’s this type of individual who tries to float above the will of the people. And it’s a kind of elitism,” McDaniel said. “I only have one boss. It’s the people. From my perspective, it’s already incredibly difficult to get ballot initiatives on the ballot. Our job is not to make self-government more difficult.”

‘Voters Understood What They Were Voting On’

During a radio interview on the Paul Gallo Show on SuperTalk Mississippi last week, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Mississippi House said he is already looking at additional changes that lawmakers could make in addition to repairing the one technical issue.

Mississippi House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, a Republican, said the Legislature has “an opportunity for us not to only fix the five-to-four process, get that right, but also get right how we do our ballot-initiative process.” Photo courtesy Mississippi Legislature

“I think it’s an opportunity for us not to only fix the five-to-four process, get that right, but also get right how we do our ballot-initiative process,” Mississippi House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White said. “For one thing, on the ballot, you’re limited in how many words you can put on there to explain to the voter what they’re voting on, because for all the clamoring, whether we’re talking about 65 or any other ballot initiative, a lot of people do not know—they were not schooled on the front end. … They didn’t go in there to vote on this initiative, so they see it, they’re confronted with it and they vote.”

McDaniel told the Mississippi Free Press that he considers such comments “incredibly disappointing”—and unintentionally ironic.

“As I understand it, the (Initiative 65) referendum language was only about five-and-a-half pages long, right? And the people had months by which to dissect it, debate it and understand it,” the Jones County Republican said. “Millions of dollars were spent on both sides, there was constant debate about it on social media. Voters understood what they were voting on much more so than we do as legislators on bills we are voting on.”

McDaniel noted that legislative leaders often ask members to vote on bills without giving them time to read the language.

“Think about House leadership or Senate leadership—they will put a 200-page bill before us and expect us to vote on it immediately,” the senator said. “The people on this issue had much more knowledge of the issue than we do of bills we pass every day. That’s just the reality of it.”

Republican leaders are not the only members of the Mississippi Legislature who have issues with the ballot-initiative process as it existed until the Mississippi Supreme Court rendered it moot. Last week, Sen. Hob Bryan, a Democrat from Amory, told Mississippi Free Press State Reporter Nick Judin that he considers it “a terrible way to make policy” and that he hopes the governor does not call a special session to revive it.

‘Stacey Abrams of Georgia?’

On SuperTalk, Speaker Pro Tempore White pointed to a recent effort to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot, which many Republicans oppose. He said the effort, known as the Yes On 76 campaign, raises more reasons for concern with the ballot-initiative process. If successful, the Yes On 76 campaign for Medicaid expansion, which was backed by the Mississippi Hospital Association, could have provided health care to around 200,000 uninsured, working Mississippians. 

MHA has said for years that expansion is necessary to help prevent about half of the state’s rural hospitals from suffering financial collapse. Polls in recent years have shown that around 60% of Mississippians favor Medicaid expansion.

Dr. John Gaudet stands at the podium with nurses and health workers behind him and a YES ON 76 campaign sign in front of him in support of Medicaid expansion
“This is not a political issue. This is a human issue. And it is a common sense solution,” Dr. John Gaudet, a Hattiesburg pediatrician, said at the launch of the Yes on 76 campaign to expand Medicaid in Mississippi on May 11, 2021. Photo by Shawn Rossi courtesy Mississippi Health Association

But White told Gallo, without offering any evidence, that Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Black voting-rights activist with Mississippi roots who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, could be connected to this state’s Medicaid-expansion effort.

“You look at what the Hospital Association is doing with the expansion of Medicaid, follow that money trail and see where it goes down,” White told Gallo. “When I get to clickin’—and I’m not a good computer tech generation like I should be, at my age I should be better, and I’m not—but even I, after clicking just about three times, Stacey Abrams’ face keeps popping up.”

“You mean with the Hospital Association? Stacey Abrams of Georgia?” Gallo replied with a note of astonishment.

“Yes sir, yes sir,” White replied. “So I hate it with the people of the Hospital Association, but it’s just a fact. There’s an agenda there that may not be just about getting Mississippians some affordable health care. … What I’m not about is somebody co-opting a ballot-initiative process to push something through that has nothing to do with getting Mississippians health care.”

Financial disclosures show that Yes On 76 has accepted contributions from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Mississippi Hospital Association and The Fairness Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps fund ballot-initiative campaigns to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage in states across the country. 

Though Abrams tweeted support for the Fairness Project’s Medicaid-expansion efforts in 2019, she does not have a role at the organization. Her own organization, Fair Fight Action, focuses on voting rights and is not connected to the Fairness Project.

‘Our Job … Is Not To Circumvent The Will Of The People’

The Mississippi Free Press reached out to the Yes On 76 campaign (which suspended its signature-collecting efforts on May 19 following the court’s ruling) for comment on White’s remarks. T. Richard Roberson, the general counsel for the Mississippi Hospital Association, sent a statement addressing the speaker pro tempore’s claims.

“Let’s be clear, the only agenda for the Mississippi Hospital Association in supporting a ballot measure for Medicaid expansion was to promote healthcare coverage for working Mississippians—period,” the MHA said. “We have supported Rep. White for many years and he knows the hard work that MHA has done in recent years to advance this issue through the legislative process.  If he has a plan for addressing this critical healthcare and economic issue for our state, we would love to see it.”

Senator Chris McDaniel talks to voters
“I think people understand that I’m very much against Medicaid expansion,” Mississippi Sen. Chris McDaniel said. “But our job as conservatives is not to circumvent the will of the people because we think it might not turn out well for us. Our job is to convince the majority of the people that our argument is sound.” Photo by Ashton Pittman

Some Mississippi Republicans support Medicaid expansion in some form or fashion, including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the Republican Senate president. Others, like Gov. Tate Reeves, have long opposed it. Sen. McDaniel, a fiscal conservative who has often expressed a distrust of the federal government (which would fund between 90% and 100% of Mississippi’s Medicaid expansion costs), is not a supporter, either.

“I think people understand that I’m very much against Medicaid expansion,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. “But our job as conservatives is not to circumvent the will of the people because we think it might not turn out well for us. Our job is to convince the majority of the people that our argument is sound. If we can’t…that’s our fault, that’s our responsibility.”

The Jones County senator pointed out that, when voters had brought ballot initiatives or approved referendums that most of his fellow Republicans liked, they had not complained.

“It’s funny, when we passed voter ID, they thought the procedure was fine. And when we passed eminent domain they thought the procedure was fine,” McDaniel said.

The Jones County senator recently backed a group’s efforts to put the state flag on the ballot in 2022. McDaniel was one of a minority of lawmakers who voted against retiring the 1894 Confederate flag in 2020, arguing then that voters should have the chance to decide whether to keep the old Confederate-themed flag or not. 

The Legislature created a committee that designed a new flag, and voters were given the choice to either adopt it or reject it; they approved the new flag last November. But McDaniel agreed with the group pushing for a new flag initiative that the 1894 flag should have been an option. But as with the Medicaid expansion and early vote campaigns, the 2022 flag effort is now dead, too.

‘Fix It, and Be A Little More Conservative’

On Gallo’s show, White suggested that Republicans in the Legislature may want to adopt a more restrictive medical-marijuana program than Initiative 65 because, despite wide adoption by the overall electorate, they may be more concerned about the small group of GOP primary voters that make up their base.

“You’ve got a group of people that are clamoring that 74% voted for this. I would tell you that, for the Republican folks sitting there, that 26% that voted no were probably some of their main supporters,” the Mississippi speaker pro tempore told Gallo. “So they’re concerned and they’re hearing from those people, ‘We’re good with medical marijuana, and we want you to … fix it and be a little more conservative with it than the way it hit the ballot, that maybe everybody didn’t know about.” 

Kelly Jacobs, wearing a green hat, stands with a sign that reads, "Bring MS Voting Into the 21st Century" next to House Representative Hester Jackson McCray
Kelly Jacobs, left, announced the ballot initiative for early voting in Mississippi with State Rep. Hester Jackson-McCray, right, on April 1, 2021. Jacobs held a sign that read, “Bring MS Voting Into The 21st Century!” Like the Medicaid expansion ballot drive, this effort is now indefinitely on hold after the Mississippi Supreme Court nullified the state’s ballot initiative law. Photo courtesy Kelly Jacobs.

White was misstating the numbers. After backers collected 228,000 to get Initiative 65 on the November 2020 ballot, lawmakers who did not like its approach to medical marijuana turned the issue into a two-part question. The first part was a yes-or-no question that asked voters if they wanted to adopt a medical marijuana program; 68% marked “yes” on their ballot.

The second part allowed voters to choose which medical marijuana program to adopt: either Initiative 65 or Initiative 65A—the latter being a more conservative alternative that the Legislature offered up that would have allowed lawmakers to retain control over the specifics of the program. But voters broke 74% to 26% in favor of the citizen initiative over the Legislature’s option.

In the interview with Gallo, White implied that Initiative 65 would have brought the state close to recreational levels of marijuana availability.

“Paul, you know this, 65 was a one-off from recreation. I’ve got friends that will be upset that I said that to you here on statewide radio, but it was. … If it had gone into law, it was a one-off from recreational,” the Republican speaker pro tempore said. “And we need to be at least willing to have a conversation and acknowledge that.”

Gallo, a conservative host who often expresses agreement with top Republicans in the state, concurred.

“That’s why you go to social media, and you see a lot of young people who probably do not have an aunt who is terminal, and they are all in on this thing, they are tore up,” Gallo said, eliciting a nod and a laugh from White.

But Initiative 65 did not allow for any recreational sale or use of marijuana. It specified 22 qualifying conditions for which licensed doctors could certify patients for treatment, including cancer, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. The voter-approved law included oversight provisions and required the Mississippi State Department of Health to regulate the growing of medical marijuana, oversee business licensing for dispensaries and provide eligible patients with ID cards.

‘You Have To Respect What The Initiative 65 People Did’

White said he believes there is “room to have a robust medical-marijuana program,” but that he does not want them to “have any protections that any other businesses don’t have”—such as zoning privileges. He pointed to the medical-marijuana law that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law last week, saying he thinks lawmakers could adopt something “closer to that.” 

The Alabama law is significantly more restrictive than Initiative 65, though. It allows treatment for people with just 16 qualifying conditions instead of 22 and permits just 12 licensed growers to operate in the state. Unlike Initiative 65, the Alabama law does not allow patients to consume medical marijuana in smokable forms.

Between 2018 and 2019, around 228,000 Mississippians signed the petition to get medical marijuana on the ballot in 2020. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

McDaniel told the Mississippi Free Press that he wants the Legislature to simply codify the medical-marijuana program that voters passed into law. The campaigners and volunteers who worked for a year to get Initiative 65 on the ballot and then to convince voters to support it went “through all that trouble and all that heartache, and we ought to respect it,” he said.

That aligns with the position he staked out on Initiative 65 during an interview with this reporter in 2018, when he said he would “trust the people of the state to make that decision” and that he would “respect the wishes of the people.”

“My position is we should adopt the referendum language because our bosses have indicated that’s what they want,” the Ellisville Republican said on May 21. “And you’ve got this group out there that seems to claim they have this inherent right to circumvent the will of the people. And technically, that may be accurate, but that does circumvent the point of our process.”

McDaniel said he knows there is “a lot of fear of direct democracy referendums,” but in Mississippi, he said, “it’s only utilized when the Legislature has kicked the can down the road unnecessarily for decades.”

“And when the government has been reckless in not addressing an issue the way we haven’t with this, the people have a right to address it themselves,” he said.

McDaniel pointed out that it is “already incredibly difficult” to get initiatives on the ballot in Mississippi. Petitioners must collect more than 100,000 signatures statewide, and even then, local officials often strike thousands of signatures or fail to pass them on to the secretary of state for certification. Because of those hurdles, Initiative 65 petitioners collected more than twice the required amount of signatures statewide between 2018 and 2019.

“Our job is not to make self-government more difficult. … You can use volunteers, and they can work themselves to death trying to get the signatures,” Sen. McDaniel said. “And even then with a broad base of support, it’s not easy. You have to respect what the Initiative 65 people did. And why politicians wouldn’t respect that effort is mind-boggling.”

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