In my conversations about referring Senate Bill 69 and/or Senate Bill 177, numerous South Dakota neighbors have expressed the concern that crowding the ballot with lots of referenda and initiatives reduces the chances of passing any of them. Divide finite attention by increasing ballot measures, and you’re going to get more exasperated voters who just check “No” on everything. Refer bills from this Legislative session, and you’re going to make it harder for Steve Hickey and Steve Hildebrand or Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson to sell their big initiatives in 2016.
Do more ballot measures mean a higher percentage of defeated measures? My math says… probably not.
Ballotpedia offers a list of all 333 ballot measures from 1890 to 2014. I have condensed all of those measures into a single spreadsheet here. We’ve passed 144 and defeated 189. That’s a 43.2% success rate… although “success” may not be the right word. Folks who put initiatives forward are hoping for a “Yes” vote, while folks who refer laws are generally hoping for a “No” vote. We have voted down 70% of our 44 referenda. If we count defeats of referred laws as “success” for the organizers, then the overall “success” rate for ballot measures rises to 48.7%.
But for this math moment, let’s just say Yes means Yes and No means No. How does the percentage of passed measures correspond to the number of measures on the ballot?
- In years when South Dakotans have had just one, two, or three ballot measures, the pass rate has varied between 0% and 100%.
- In the six years when we’ve had more than ten ballot measures, the pass rate has ranged from 9% to 92%.
- If I get nasty and run the formal statistical correlation of each year’s ballot measure count with the pass rate, I get a small and statistically insignificant number.
More simply put, if South Dakota history means anything, folks referring laws to a public don’t affect the chances Steve and Steve and Rick and Drey have of passing their initiated measures. Ballot measure success is much more likely to be affected by the merits of each issue and the efforts of each campaign.
Bonus chart! Here’s my summary of the pass rates for each type of ballot measure:
|Citizen-initiated constitutional amendments||12||41.67%|
|Legislatively referred constitutional amendments||221||50.23%|