Missouri voters have a potentially precedent-setting decision to make when they head to the primary ballot box this summer, and it has noting to do with candidates for office.
Republicans state Sen. Rob Schaaf and Rep. Paul Curtman will give Missourians a chance to weigh in on the national conversation about government surveillance with a ballot attached to the Aug. 5 primary that asks whether the government should have permission to access electronic communications without search warrants.
According to Riverfront Times, the ballot will ask, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended so that the people shall be secure in their electronic communications and data from unreasonable searches and seizures as they are now likewise secure in their persons, homes, papers and effects?”
The question seeks to address one of the major focal points of the argument sparked by the leaks of National Security Agency bulk surveillance programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden: What exactly does the Fourth Amendment guarantee in the age of digital communications?
Missouri lawmakers described the amendment as “a direct response to revelations about the scope and nature of the NSA’s domestic spying programs.”
“You’re protected under the Missouri Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that you will be secure in your persons, papers, homes and effects,” Schaaf said while describing the ballot’s language as a common right and belief.
“And this would just add on ‘electronic communications’ to that, which is what people expect. People want to be secure in knowing that if they text each other that the government isn’t going to be snooping and reading all of their texts and emails.”
If Schaaf’s belief is affirmed by voters, SJR 27 will be the first state constitutional amendment in the country inspired by the federal government’s massive digital surveillance apparatus.
National law trumps state law due to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, however, so the amendment would only limit agencies in Missouri like police departments, for example.
The amendment “would only apply in Missouri because federal law and constitution preempts Missouri law,” Schaaf said. “Right now, there isn’t anything stopping police from accessing your electronic items when you’re arrested, and this would make it required that they would have to have a warrant based on probable cause that a law has been violated.”
A number of bills attempting to limit electronic surveillance have spawned in the Missouri legislature since the Snowden leaks began last year, including limits to drone use and mandatory warrants for information on electronic devices. All such legislation remains in committee, the Riverfront Times reports.
“The real reason why we did this is to get it in federal law,” Schaaf said. “This is an opportunity for a test vote on the issue where the people of Missouri will be given an opportunity to say how they feel. And, you know, Missouri is usually kind of a proxy for the mood of the country.”
“We think that Missouri can be the bellwether for this issue, and I predict a high voter percentage for this amendment. I mean, who’s gonna vote against it?”
Schaaf and Curtman “openly admit” Snowden has influenced their legislative attempts to tackle government surveillance overreach, and echoed Snowden’s assertion during his first U.S. television interview last month that “sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to break a law.”
“Even people who break the law, sometimes something good comes out of it, and this is one of those times,” Schaaf said. “So I think that he clearly broke the law, but there is something good coming out of it, and that’s an awareness of how severely our privacy is being infringed by the federal government.”