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Mississippi

Mississippi adopted the initiative process -- for the second time -- in 1992. Mississippi is the only state that once had a statewide initiative process but lost it: not because the people rejected it, but because the state supreme court in 1922 decided on the basis of a legal technicality to throw the I&R provision out of the state constitution.

Agitation for the initiative and referendum in Mississippi achieved partial success for the first time in 1912 when voters approved an I&R amendment by a nearly two to one margin. However, the measure failed to achieve a majority of all ballots cast in the election (rather than a simple majority of votes on the I&R question) as required by the state constitution, and therefore was not approved.

After the initial defeat, I&R supporters led by State Representatives N. A. Mott of Yazoo City and Frank Burkitt of Okalona succeeded in pushing their proposal through the legislature a second time, and it was on the ballot again in 1914. This time it passed by a margin of more than two to one, and also satisfied the supermajority requirement.

In 1916 voters successfully petitioned to refer a bill passed by the legislature appointing a certain Z. A. Brantley to the office of game and fish commissioner, and then rejected the law by popular vote. Brantley took the case to court, charging that the I&R amendment was not valid. On March 26, 1917 the state supreme court upheld the referendum and the I&R process (State v. Brantley, 113 Miss. 786, 74 South, 662, Ann. Cas. 1917E, 723). An elated Assistant Attorney General Lamar F. Easterling, who defended the I&R process in the case, wrote the following day that the decision "settles the matter finally in this state."

Easterling's assessment proved premature. Five years later, a citizen group backing an initiative to change the salary of the state revenue agent turned in enough petition signatures to qualify the measure for the November 1922 ballot. Stokes V. Robertson, the revenue agent, went to court to keep it off the ballot, again attacking the validity of the I&R amendment. The state supreme court, reversing its 1917 judgment, held that initiatives or referendums on statutes are one thing, but initiative constitutional amendments are another, and thus the constitutional initiative power should have been approved in 1914 in a separate amendment. Because it was not, the entire I&R provision was held unconstitutional. The court held: "The Constitution is the product of the people in their sovereign capacity. It was intended primarily to secure the rights of the people against the encroachments of the legislative branch of the government" (Power v. Robertson, 130 Miss. 188, 93 So. 769). The legislature declined to remedy the situation by approving two new amendments, one covering statutory, and the other constitutional, initiatives.

The issue lay dormant until 1977 when Upton Sisson of Gulfport took up the cause. Sisson, who served as state representative from 1956 to 1960, was a civil rights attorney who had argued one of the landmark "one man, one vote" reapportionment cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. At age 70 and in failing health, Sisson returned to the legislature to lobby for I&R. Although unsuccessful, his efforts sparked enough interest in the subject that State Attorney General Bill Allain, running for governor in 1983, pledged to work for passage of an I&R amendment if elected. Allain won, but he was unable to fulfill his pledge.

The initiative was readopted in 1992. During the 1992 session, the legislature approved Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 616. Initiative and referendum had been a widely discussed campaign issue in the 1991 fall elections. Its eventual passage in the 1992 regular session of the legislature was widely hailed as a progressive reform of government. It was approved by an astounding 70 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 fall elections making Mississippi the more recent state to adopt the statewide initiative process.

The state's process is an indirect initiative, meaning that proposals go to the legislature before the voters, The process for qualifying a measure is one of the most difficult in the country. As a result, only two initiatives have qualified for the ballot in the two decades since adoption, in 1995 and 1999. Both measures proposed to limit the terms of elected officials, and both were defeated by about 10 percent margins.

 

See David Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Temple University Press, 1989).

 

2013 Initiative & Referendum Institute

USC School of Law

Los Angeles CA 90089-0071