Lawsuit accuses top Missouri election official Ashcroft of illegally blocking ballot measure

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A Columbia man filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft of illegally blocking a proposed citizen-driven ballot question that would have prevented lawmakers from making it harder for voters to amend the state constitution.

The lawsuit, filed by Columbia resident Harry Cooper in Cole County, argues that Ashcroft, a likely candidate for governor in 2024, unlawfully rejected Cooper’s filing, did so after a 15-day deadline and refused to provide a reason, as required by state law.

It alleges that Ashcroft’s actions create a pretext where the secretary of state could block any ballot question he does not like.

“Apparently Jay Ashcroft doesn’t care about law and order,” Cooper said in a statement.

JoDonn Chaney, Ashcroft’s spokesperson, said in an email to The Star that the secretary of state’s office was served the lawsuit and it is “currently under review.”

Cooper’s proposed ballot question would have asked voters in 2024 to approve a measure preventing state lawmakers from passing laws that make it harder for citizens to amend the state’s initiative petition process. It also would have allowed lawmakers to serve 16 years in either chamber instead of the current eight year per chamber cap.

The ballot measure would have reduced the legislative term limit to 12 years if lawmakers pass any laws that restrict the public’s ability to amend the state constitution.

Cooper’s petition was in response to Missouri Republican lawmakers proposing a flurry of bills that would make it harder for voters across the state to approve amendments to the state constitution. The legislation comes in the wake of Missouri voters approving several liberal-leaning policies such as recreational and medical marijuana.

According to the lawsuit, Cooper filed two versions of his ballot question with Ashcroft’s office in mid-February. Ashcroft’s office notified Cooper 12 days later that the petition had been approved.

Ashcroft, according to the lawsuit, then reversed course on March 9, and notified Cooper that the proposals had been rejected. The lawsuit alleges that this rejection happened after the 15-day deadline required by state law and Ashcroft gave no reason for rejecting the proposal.

“It’s important to make sure that doesn’t become a legally sanctioned avenue for any current or future secretary of state,” Matt Vianello, Cooper’s attorney, told The Star.

The lawsuit further alleges that Ashcroft has rejected “a number of” other ballot initiatives this year through a similar process.

For Ashcroft “to reject initiative petition sample sheets after they have been approved, reject them after the 15 day approval/rejection period has passed and reject them without providing any actual reasons flies in the face of well-established legal precedent in Missouri,” the lawsuit said.