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Mississippi Voters ‘Overwhelmingly’ Want Ballot Initiatives Restored, Open Meetings

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
Likely voters in Mississippi support restoring the ballot-initiative system by a 65%-14% margin, a survey the Southern Poverty Law Center released on Feb. 6, 2023, found. The Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the ballot-initiative process in May 2021. The ruling came days after a coalition of health-care leaders and patients, seen here, announced a campaign to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot on May 11, 2021. Photo by Shawn Rossi courtesy Mississippi Health Association

An “overwhelming” bi-partisan majority of likely Mississippi voters want the Legislature to restore the ability of voters to put issues on the ballot and vote on them through ballot initiatives, a new survey shows. The Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the ballot-initiative process in May 2021, along with a medical-marijuana law voters had approved in November 2020.

The poll, which Tulchin Research conducted between Jan. 21 and Jan. 25 on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund and the New Southern Majority IE PAC, found that 65% of Mississippians said they “support the Mississippi State Legislature restoring the state’s ballot initiative process.” Among the supporters, 40% said they “strongly support” doing so. Only 14% of voters said they oppose restoring ballot initiatives, while 21% said they “don’t know.”

“Mississippians overwhelmingly support restoring a ballot initiative process no matter their party affiliation, location, age, race or any other demographic,” SPLC Action Fund Mississippi Policy Director Sonya Williams said in a statement this morning. “Mississippians want a direct voice in their government, and they deserve a process that makes it reasonably easy to put the issues they want to see on the ballot. The time is now for Mississippi lawmakers to prioritize getting this done for the people of this state.”

Tulchin Research said it surveyed 500 Mississippians it identified as “likely voters” by contacting people by landlines, cell phones, emails and text messages. The survey’s margin of error was +/- 4.3 percentage points.

The survey also found that 61% of Mississippi voters support expanding Medicaid, which health-care experts say could bring coverage to between 100,000 and 300,000 low-wage working Mississippians—and could also help save dozens of endangered rural hospitals that are required to see patients who currently have no way to pay. The poll found that 25% of likely voters oppose Medicaid expansion, while 14% said they “don’t know.” Other polls have similarly found majority support for expansion.

When the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the ballot-initiative process, it killed a campaign to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot that had launched just two days earlier. During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers passed a more restrictive medical-marijuana law to pass the voter-approved one the court had nullified, but failed to restore the ballot initiative process.

Mississippi Sen. John Polk, the Republican chairman of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency committee, is leading negotiations on restoring the ballot initiative process. But last month, the Hattiesburg Republican told SuperTalk Mississippi radio host Paul Gallo that the “initiative could be very dangerous if not done in exactly the right way.”

“There are some people who want to increase Medicaid, there are people who want to guarantee that we fully fund MAEP,” he said, referring to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula for public schools whose requirements the Legislature has not met since 2008. “You know Paul, every four years, and this is a year coming up, our people have the opportunity to elect senators and representatives. We have a representative form of government, and if we’re not doing what you want us to do, vote us out.”

The SPLC survey also found that 71% of Mississippians “believe the state Legislature should not be allowed to hold meetings in private where they can avoid public transparency, knowledge and input.” The Mississippi House Republican Caucus, which includes 75 of the chamber’s 122 members, regularly meets behind closed doors to make decisions about legislation away from public view.

Last spring, Mississippi Free Press reporter Nick Judin entered a caucus meeting, saying he was there “under the Open Meetings Act.” House Speaker Philip Gunn and other leaders told him their caucus meetings were not subject to the Open Meetings Act’s transparency requirements and instructed him to leave. The Mississippi Free Press challenged the House, but a 5-3 majority of the Mississippi Ethics Commission sided with Gunn in December 2022, ruling that the Mississippi Legislature is not a “public body” under the Open Meetings Act.

Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Brookhaven, and 19 other lawmakers introduced a bill this session that would have clarified that the meetings covered under the Open Meetings Act includes “a quorum of members of a public body may deliberate or act upon any matter.” That bill died in Sen. Polk’s committee on a Jan. 31 deadline.

“I decided not to bring it up—I talked to Senator Barrett, and we discussed it, and it needs more work,” Polk told Mississippi Free Press Senior Reporter Kayode Crown on Jan. 31. “It’s dead this year; there’s always next year.”

The SPLC survey also found that a 67%-27% majority of Mississippi voters support extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers to 12 months; that coverage currently cuts over after 60 days. Though the Mississippi Senate has repeatedly voted to extend postpartum coverage, House leaders repeatedly blocked it in 2021 and 2022.

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