Mississippi Elections

Secretary of State Michael Watson speaks to members of the Senate and House Elections Committees during a joint hearing at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson in June 2020.

TUPELO • Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson believes that voters should have an opportunity to discuss whether people should be allowed to directly change state laws.

After speaking to members of the local Kiwanis Club in Tupelo, Watson told the Daily Journal that he and his office are trying to conduct town halls at some point in the future to gauge the public’s interest in directly amending the Mississippi Code, which deals with state laws or statutes.

“I think that makes the most sense,” Watson said of allowing citizens to change state laws.

Before the state Supreme Court threw out the state’s initiative process, Mississippi citizens could directly amend the state constitution, but not directly change any laws.

To justify the need for such a mechanism, Watson points to Initiative 65, which sought to establish a medical marijuana program in the state. One of the common critiques of Initiative 65 was that a marijuana program didn’t belong in the state constitution.

“I think you would have even more support if people had known they could change that in statute as opposed to the constitution,” Watson said.

Legislators are the only people that can introduce bills and constitutional amendments, but as the state’s top elections official, Watson’s support for such a program could influence lawmakers to establish a program.

The first-term Republican secretary of state said that he hopes to conduct hearings across the state to try and gauge how such a mechanism would work. But before he approaches that task, Watson thinks state leaders should first restore the constitutional initiative process back.

The Mississippi Supreme Court tossed out the state’s initiative process over procedural issues with the state’s congressional districts. Essentially, the initiative process required signatures to be gathered from five congressional districts, even though the state now only has four congressional districts.

Watson said he believes the immediate fix to restore the initiative process for the state Constitution should simply be to amend the congressional district portion to include “pro rata” language or language that says signatures should be gathered proportionally from the state’s existing congressional districts.

“Once we get that fixed, then we could look at this (initiative) process as a whole,” Watson said.

Any change to the Mississippi Constitution must be approved by a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the Legislature. After legislative approval, a majority of voters would then have to approve the amendment during an election.

Gov. Tate Reeves has the sole power to call lawmakers into a special legislative session and set the agenda for such a session.

Reeves, a first-term Republican governor, has expressed support for a special session to address medical marijuana, but he has been reluctant to use a special session for the initiative process.

The next regularly scheduled statewide election in Mississippi will take place in November 2022, and Reeves has previously said that because the election will not occur for over a year, then lawmakers will have sufficient time to address the issue in its regular session.

“The timing is a little less concerning with respect to that,” Reeves previously said of the initiative process.

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