South Dakota limits voters’ ability to put issues on ballot
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The 2016 election was the tipping point.
South Dakota voters passed a sweeping campaign finance and ethics law, and legislators quickly struck it down.
They have been chipping away at voters’ ability to bring issues to the ballot ever since.
A year after Initiated Measure 22′s demise, the Legislature passed a dozen bills tightening the reins on the initiative and referendum process.
Some changes are small, like requiring a uniform font size for ballot measure petitions. But all told, the onslaught of bills puts South Dakota in a league of its own in terms of restricting direct democracy.
“South Dakota was a standout,” said Wendy Underhill, an expert in initiative and referendum processes at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There’s been more action in South Dakota than in other states.”
The Argus Leader reports that now, direct democracy advocates are scrambling to undo the laws that do the most damage before they’re left fighting under the new constraints imposed on the process.
Discussions over restrictions to initiative and referendum have cropped up from the time South Dakota became the first in the nation to implement the process in 1889.
But they came to a head again after voters approved IM 22.
″(Voters) were hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said of the law during his budget address in December of 2016.
He pointed to a provision of the law that would’ve established a voucher system for funding political campaigns and said South Dakotans would prefer to spend their taxpayer dollars to boost to K-12 education, health care and state employees.
From there, the Legislature made quick work of striking IM 22 in 2017. All the while opponents crowded the galleries at the Statehouse and held demonstrations, including one that involved a plane towing a banner of opposition around the Capitol building.
Lawmakers tried to go one step further, mulling an out-of-state funding ban for ballot measure campaigns. But they couldn’t move forward with the lingering political pressure from voters still sore over the ethics law repeal.
So they put off the conversations about reform and scheduled a summer study on the initiative and referendum process.
A panel of lawmakers, campaign leaders, constitutional officers and political science experts met last summer and mulled over changes to the process.
And in the end, they came out with a handful of proposals ranging from requiring a uniform petition and font size to increasing the threshold of support needed to alter the state’s Constitution on the ballot.
“There was really a genuine effort to bring bills that were ideas we could all agree upon,” said Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who was a member of the task force. “And we saw that many of those (bills) without the support of the task force were dropped.”
For the most part, the task force’s bills found bipartisan support in the Statehouse.
But then other lawmakers began filing bills that the task force hadn’t OK-ed.
The proposals filed outside the task force ranged from asking voters to opt out of their ability to bring constitutional amendments to the ballot, to requiring petition signatures from a broader geographic area, to asking those who circulate petitions to submit affidavits listing information about their background.
The changes were crucial in blocking foreign influence on South Dakota laws, supporters said.
“The goal is if we’re going to ask people to be residents to circulate, we need to make sure enforce that,” House Speaker Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, said. “We’ve seen many occasions where out-of-state groups, many times liberal groups, use that process to promote ideas that don’t fit our culture.”
Mickelson circulated two ballot measures in 2017 and said he frequently witnessed non-residents circulating petitions, which violates state law. He said he wouldn’t have had a problem operating under the new requirements with his teams of dozens of volunteers.
Daugaard agreed that the new requirements wouldn’t be significant for those aiming to bring policy questions to the ballot.
“If you’re organized enough to recruit 70 people, you should be organized enough to aggregate five or six items of information on each of them,” Daugaard told reporters last month. “I don’t see that as very burdensome.”
But opponents said the measures would block grassroots groups from bringing initiatives to the ballot.
Direct democracy advocates and those who’ve led ballot measure campaigns in the past said the Legislature’s “scattershot” approach would raise the bar for those aiming to bring questions to the ballot in the future.
And while lawmakers passed the bills with a hope of blocking out foreign influence, circulators said they anticipated it would hurt grassroots groups most.
“It’s not that there’s any one bill this year that’s a disaster that will absolutely kill initiatives and referendums,” Cory Heidelberger, a Democratic state Senate candidate and former circulator said. “It’s that there are so many of them that continue to complicate the process and that crowd grassroots organizers out.”
Former state Rep. Steve Hickey, who helped direct an effort to cap interest rates on payday lenders in South Dakota in 2016, said he was frustrated to see the Republican supermajority in the Statehouse aim to make it harder for South Dakotans to bring policy questions to the ballot.
“All the hurdles they sought this year don’t make it harder for the out-of-staters who have gobs of money to pay for signatures in far larger states than ours,” the Sioux Falls Republican said. “It only makes it harder on South Dakota citizens.”
Joe Kirby, who led an unsuccessful campaign to bring a proposal implementing non-partisan primary elections to the November ballot, said it would “pretty much eliminate the volunteer petition drive.”
More: ‘I’m going to do it myself’: Women see path for state’s first female-majority Legislature
Compared to other states, South Dakota took a unique approach to addressing perceived problems with the initiative and referendum process, national experts said.
While 13 states considered more than 45 bills aimed at the initiative and referendum process in the last year, South Dakota seemed to lead the charge, said Kellie Dupree. Dupree is the director of partnerships and training at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports progressive ballot initiatives.
“While South Dakota is ground zero for what we’re seeing in these attacks, it’s part of a coordinated attack,” Dupree said, pointing to calls from a Republican group of secretaries of state to defeat liberal ballot initiatives.
For now, opponents of South Dakota’s new laws say they’re not sure what they’ll do.
They’ve mulled referring a couple of the laws back to the voters or challenging them in court. But those options come with hefty price tags. And it takes time to get the petitions needed to bring the laws to the ballot.
“It’s hard to keep up with a scattershot assault,” Heidelberger said. “It’s a lot easier when it’s a big missile like the repeal of IM 22 last year.”
And the set of smaller changes also come with less voter outrage, he said.
Heidelberger and Sioux Falls City Councilor Theresa Stehly said they’d consider a broader initiative in 2020 that would aim to gut the state’s laws dealing with initiative and referendum restrictions.
But bringing that proposal would require them to test the constraints of the new laws.
“This is how the elephant eats us, one bite at a time,” Heidelberger said. “They don’t just kill initiative and referendum because we won’t stand for it, but they do a little thing here, a little thing there, knowing that it’s really hard for the people to do a referendum drive on 12 different bills.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com