RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Missouri Asks: Who are the Farmers and Ranchers?

To the Missouri farmers and supporters gathered on High Street in Jefferson City on Feb. 25, it may have seemed like going the wrong way. On one side of the street is the Capitol, where lawmakers were debating a bill that would force a new “checkoff” tax on beef producers who had no way to vote on it or even to determine where the money would go. And, in the Capitol rotunda, rural residents were rallying for Medicaid expansion, a claiming of federal money that could save hospitals and ambulance service in rural communities.

But we were crossing High Street, entering the Supreme Court building, to hear arguments on Amendment One. This was the so-called “right to farm” amendment that pulled the wool over the eyes of voters back in August. Corporate agriculture boasts that they won that election, guaranteeing themselves rights to use any technology, chemicals, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or whatever even if it harms their neighbors. For the rest of us, who believe we have the right to farm without chemicals or CAFOs, the amendment seems to guarantee our rights as well.

The real winners are the lawyers with the right to battle in court as the meaning of the amendment is sleuthed out.

Before going further, let me remark that this ballot issue was proposed by the Missouri legislature and not by voters. It was a suggestion from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a right-wing think tank that builds legislation and offers it to members who are lawmakers. Similar constitutional amendments have been passed in a couple of other states and may be in your state next. ALEC invites lawmakers to conventions to learn about these laws, in Missouri’s case, travel to the conventions are paid by taxpayers.

From the beginning, the issue has been confusing. The ballot asked, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed? It added, “A ‘yes’ vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to guarantee the rights of Missourians to engage in farming and ranching practices, subject to any power given to local government under Article VI of the Missouri Constitution.” Article VI, by the way, gives rights to counties to zone for industry and residences.

But the amendment has different language: “To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.”

See the problem? The ballot said, “citizen.” The amendment says, “farmers and ranchers.” Just whose rights are being guaranteed? And, given the confusion, was the vote valid?

The Court was hearing the suit against the state, brought by Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Missouri Farmers Union and Missouri’s Food for America. Lawyer for the groups, Anthony DeWitt, began his argument by quoting Mark Twain. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” And that’s the crux of the matter. Ballot language is written by the Secretary of State’s office and reviewed by the Governor’s office. The third branch of government—judicial—has no procedure to review it even though they will be responsible for interpretation if it passes. The farm groups were asking that the election would be set aside and that a new election would be held with language that was more accurate and fair.

The Supremes asked question after question. Is there evidence that there was confusion? Of course, but not in writing and not in presentable form. There is story after story of voters who voted yes thinking that they were helping farmers, only to later learn that they were probably helping corporations.

Why didn’t farmers protest before the election? DeWitt answered that the window of opportunity for protest is impossibly small. Ballot language is announced ten days before the ballots are printed. And, once they are printed, it is too late. Justice Teitelman remembered that in 2000, Missourians elected a dead man to the US Senate, voting for Mel Carnahan just weeks after he had been killed in a plane crash. His wife, Jean, served his term.

Had anyone been harmed by the passage? Well, it is too early to tell.

Was the purpose of the ballot language to communicate the meaning of the amendment or the purpose of the amendment? Is there proof that there was a bias in the language or was it enough to say that it was misleading?

The state pointed out that even though ballot language is brief, of necessity, 36 words in this case, it is easy for voters to do their own research. The entire amendment was printed in the newspaper, and, these days, it’s easy to do research on the internet. Yeah ... right...

What I found most chilling was the assertion that correcting this egregious error would open a Pandora’s Box to protestors of elections of all kinds. Every ballot summary is misleading, they seemed to say, and no matter how it is written, the language can still mislead voters.

Now that, for sure, is going the wrong way.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2015

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