Letter from Langdon: Counting Noses

The recount of Missouri’s “right-to-farm” constitutional amendment is on, after a loosely knit group of citizens who oppose the measure visited the Secretary of State. Richard Oswald reports on his trip to Jefferson City and what’s at stake in the debate over Amendment One.

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It's official. The recount is on.

Earlier this year when the Missouri Legislature passed a bill placing the “right-to-farm” Missouri Constitutional Amendment One on the ballot, it was considered a shoo-in.

Who could argue that agriculture wasn't important?

Then a few of us read the proposed amendment and suggested to voters that maybe they should read it too. Oh yeah, and while they were at it, maybe they should also read between the lines and see the intent: Come on in. Make yourself at home. The door is wide open. Amendment One's vague wording was an open invitation to multinational corporate agriculture.

That proved to be a powerful argument for voting “no.”

Most voters weren't aware that the Missouri General Assembly had already passed laws limiting the liability of a Chinese-owned corporation named Smithfield Foods for their hog production and allowing them to buy even more farmland in our state. In less than two weeks of active campaigning, opposition to Amendment One used those facts and more to change 200,000 voters’ minds (and probably a lot more who chose not to vote that day)

That effort turned the election into a squeaker. But we still lost. Barely.

State law says mandatory recounts can be called in elections decided by half of one percent of all votes cast. Amendment One passed by only half that much – 0.25%. If we'd had just one more week, we might have won.

That’s because some who voted yes say now, if they had heard our message in time, they would have changed their votes.

A loosely knit group of organizations and individuals who mounted the opposition and called themselves Missouri's Food for America has called for the recount. A few of us traveled to Jefferson City and the Missouri Secretary of State’s office on Friday to deliver the word in person. Most people think uncovering enough additional no votes and overturning passage is a bridge too far. But an initial count of provisional ballots has already reduced the margin to under 2,500 votes statewide.

Photo by Richard Oswald
An exterior of the Secretary of State’s office in Jefferson City, Missouri.

This is unprecedented in Missouri history. In recent years there have been two recounts of candidate elections. (Neither one resulted in a reversal.) But applying rules established in those recounts does not address the non-partisan nature of special initiatives. And the office of the Secretary of State so far has not applied all the rules from those earlier recounts to this one.

There seem to be no statues dealing directly with this unique situation. We were told we could have an attorney present to monitor recounts in every county. That's 115 lawyers. But we're just a bunch of farmers. We're not even the richest farmers. But the other side, with all its corporate connections, has plenty of legal power at their disposal.

That's different from the way a previous Secretary of State, Robin Carnahan, handled her own recount issues in 2006.

Secretary Jason Kander’s office has said they will provide up to 40 "disinterested persons" in teams of two to observe recounts. The point of that is to determine the proper disposition of contested ballots. Beyond that, those who supported or opposed the amendment will be allowed to have their own "disinterested" representative in other counties to do the same thing.

Here we go again.

In an election where one side controlled the writing of the amendment, outspending its opposition 3 to 1, we are now down to hiring lawyers and sending representatives to all of Missouri's 115 different recount locations on a few days’ notice. Custer had better odds. 

Welcome to democracy. One nation indivisible from corporate monopoly.

While obviously being partisan (Republicans are responsible for passing the bill that originally placed Amendment One on the ballot) party partisanship didn't seem apparent when elected office holders from both sides lined up to endorse this vague, indeterminate addition to the bible of Missouri law.

Besides all our members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Missouri Attorney General, and even the Secretary of State (he's the guy responsible for assuring elections are fair) endorsed it.  Other than a state official or two, only two major office holders didn't pull out the stops for One. The first was Gov. Jay Nixon, who placed several proposed amendments on the primary ballot. Nixon said he leaned against Amendment One. 

The other was US Senator Claire McCaskill.

Some county clerks say the recount is pointless and expensive. Most people feel the vote won't be changed significantly. But no one mentions the cost of placing a poorly written amendment on the ballot that will be litigated and interpreted in taxpayer-funded state courts. There has been little meaningful discussion of the corporate train wreck that would occur for rural Missouri and family farms. (Here's a bit of rural trivia. Corporations routinely demand and get tax abatement from local government. They're too “poor' “o pay their fair share. Family farmers pay the full bill – or the county sells the farm at the courthouse door.)

Schools, roads, law enforcement and fair markets for the things we grow because corporations don't like to share – it's all at stake.

Maybe what's most important is that constitutional changes should be placed above partisan political elections.

There were reports of places where police or election officials chased away members of the opposition who legally tried to hand out anti Amendment One literature near polling places. And the Secretary of State chose to allow Amendment One along with other proposed amendments  placed on party primary ballots. So someone who feels no party loyalty was forced to state that at the polls, or choose a ballot for a party they didn't support, or refuse to vote at all.

Voters should have been given separate ballots for the initiatives.  And when the vote is so close, a thing like that could make a big difference.

In the end, once recounts are over and challenges to constitutionality decided, after courts rule on local control and rights of industrial agriculture to be treated like family farms, and after all the laws protecting citizens and family farms from corporate excess are run down at the city limits of small-town rural Missouri, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next election.

Will office holders stand on their records and remind voters they helped assure China's right to farm in Missouri?

I really hope they do.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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