Two out-of-state campaigns that spent millions expected to fall short on signatures to get initiative petitions on the ballot

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Two campaigns that dumped millions of dollars into Missouri to get recreational marijuana and ranked-choice voting (RCV) on the November ballot will come up short of their goals, unofficial reports say.

It seems that both Better Elections – the group behind the RCV campaign – and Legal Missouri 2022 – the group pushing recreational marijuana – will not have enough verified signatures to be placed on the November ballot, according to unofficial tabulations obtained via a public records request. 

Legal Missouri appears to have come up short in two of the six congressional districts needed to qualify for the ballot. It is reported that the organization is 1,131 signatures short in the 6th Congressional District and 1,144 signatures short in the 7th Congressional District, despite gloating earlier this month that it had turned in over double the amount needed. 

Much of the skepticism around Legal Missouri 2022 is regarding its monetary expenditures and who it hired to gather signatures for the petition.

According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Legal Missouri spent over $3.8 million on signature gathering by out-of-state entities and individuals, with over 90% of the money going to Fieldworks LLC, a professional signature-gathering organization based in Washington, D.C. 

Individuals from Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Georgia and Kansas were paid to gather recreational marijuana signatures in Missouri.

While early counts conclude Legal Missouri will need a significant boost to qualify for the ballot, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office emphasized that the fate of the initiative will not be certain until the office issues a certificate of sufficiency or insufficiency.

The secretary is required by Missouri law to issue a certificate by Aug. 9 – two weeks after receiving the petitions from local election authorities on July 26.

Despite several media outlets reporting the initiative is unlikely to appear on the ballot, and providing supporting evidence, Legal Missouri 2022 is still confident in its chances. 

“As we continue to see more signature counts submitted by counties, it’s become crystal clear that we have more than enough signatures to qualify our citizens’ initiative for the November general election ballot,” the campaign said in a Twitter statement

Better Elections, despite receiving millions of dollars from an out-of-state dark money group, presaged its defeat in mid-June.

“There may not be sufficient signatures under Missouri law to give voters a chance to say yes to the Better Elections Amendment,” a June 16 campaign statement to the Missouri Independent said. “The final counts from counties are still coming in, and we’re watching them closely.”

Better Election’s version of RCV would have eliminated partisan primary elections and implemented one primary for all candidates. The top four candidates would advance to the general election where voters would rank their choices from most to least favorable. If no candidate receives 51% of votes, a series of “runoffs” occur. 

The candidate with the least first place votes is eliminated and the ballots listing that candidate as their first choice are re-tallied after omitting the candidate from the ballot. The process repeats each round until a winner is determined.

Ranked choice voting has been criticized in several states in which a push has been made to implement it, with many saying it gives an advantage to one side and unnecessarily complicates the voting process.

The Washington Examiner reported that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton called RCV a “corrupt scam.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy labeled it as “woke,” and New York Rep. Claudia Tenney argued that it “disenfranchises” voters. 

Even former governor of California Jerry Brown, a Democrat, recognized the flaws in the ranked-choice voting system and vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have expanded RCV across the state.

“Ranked-choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice,” Brown said.

Criticisms and backlash toward RCV in Missouri, though, also are focused on Better Elections’ funding source and the organization’s use of campaign funds. Since September 2021, a Virginia-based 501c(4) nonprofit named Article IV has donated over $6.7 million to Better Elections, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Interestingly, Better Elections used methods of gathering signatures that were strikingly similar to Legal Missouri’s, hiring out-of-state firms and individuals to do the work. Fieldworks LLC, the same D.C.-based firm that took millions from Legal Missouri to collect signatures, also received about $3 million from the pro-RCV group, according to reports filed with MEC. 

Individuals from Arkansas, Florida, Illinois and Georgia were also paid by Better Elections to gather signatures.

Many argue this brings up a major fundamental question: Why was an out-of-state entity, driven by out-of-state signature gatherers, so invested in changing the voting process in Missouri?

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft called the voting system “smoke and mirrors” and believes the group pursued RCV with the sole purpose of giving an advantage to Democrats on election day. 

“It’s an outside partisan political group that’s trying to change Missouri’s election laws so that they will win,” Ashcroft told The Heartlander in January. “I believe that the process we have is correct for making sure that the lawful voters of the state make the decision, and I will fight to defend that.”

Considering RCV’s documented record of benefitting Democrats over Republicans, a look at Better Elections’ spending on the Missouri Ethics Commission’s website unearths a few conservative consulting firms that peculiarly show up on the receiving end.

In 2022 alone, The Barklage Company has been contracted by Republican St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, Republican state Rep. Bruce DeGroot and Republican state Sen. Karla Eslinger. The consulting firm has received $70,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021. 

Husch Blackwell Strategies was contracted just last year by the Southwest Missouri Conservative Values PAC and Missouri Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe’s campaign. The consulting firm has received over $105,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021. 

Hancock & Prouty has been contracted by Republican St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Time Lohmar in the past and has received several payments over the past two years from Lt. Gov. Kehoe’s campaign. Hancock & Prouty has received over $71,000 from Better Elections since December of 2021. 

It is unclear why these consultants, who are almost exclusively hired by Republicans and conservative groups, took money to support and advocate for a voting system that has shown to benefit Democrats. 

Both the marijuana and ranked choice voting initiatives were proposed constitutional amendments and needed signatures of 8% of those who voted in the 2020 gubernatorial election, coming from at least six of the state’s eight congressional districts. That amounted to about 170,000 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, according to state law.

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