Missouri's new secretary of state got our attention Friday with steps he announced to boost the public's involvement in shaping citizen-led ballot proposals.
Secretary Jason Kander, on the job for just 10 days, said he will use his office’s website to post submitted initiative petitions. The public then will have five days to offer comments by phone, mail or e-mail before his office drafts the official summary.
These summaries are critical to the process. The official summary is printed on each petition page that is circulated for signatures. Also, if enough valid signatures are collected, this is the summary that appears on the ballot.
For ballot proposals that start in the legislature, lawmakers can write their own summaries or have the secretary of state do it.
Too often in the recent past these summaries of ballot questions have become subjects of controversy. Robin Carnahan, like Kander a Democrat, frequently was criticized by Republicans who said her summaries were biased. Five of her summaries — including ones on eminent domain, embryonic stem cell research and health insurance exchanges — were rewritten by judges after they were challenged in court.
Under Secretary Carnahan, the Associated Press notes, people had to submit a request under Missouri’s open-records law if they wanted to get a copy of a proposed initiative before her office had prepared an official summary for it. There was no formal public comment period.
Legislative advances in behalf of open government and open records have been hard to come by lately in Missouri. Often, advocates for government in the sunshine must satisfy themselves with simply heading off bad ideas.
This is why it matters that our elected statewide officeholders do everything they reasonably can to make improvements on their own.
Secretary Kander has vowed his ballot summaries will be “fair” and “easy to understand.” That’s an appropriate pledge, but his steps to take input from the public almost certainly will improve the process.