With South Dakota voters successfully placing a whole passel of good democratic measures on the 2016 ballot, Republicans naturally want to continue their assault on South Dakotans’ constitutional right to legislate via initiative and referendum. Last year Senator Corey Brown (R-23/Gettysburg) showed his loathing of democracy by trying to double the signatures necessary to place measures on the ballot. This year, Rep. Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton) is trying to force petition circulators to spend less time in Sioux Falls and Rapid City and more time everywhere else:
Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, said he plans to bring a bill that would limit the number of signatures that come from the state’s three largest counties by population, Lincoln, Minnehaha and Pennington, to no more than 50 percent of the signatures obtained. The remaining 50 would have to come from the state’s other 63 counties.
The three counties account for about 40 percent of the state’s population according to the most recent U.S. Census data [Dana Ferguson, “Lawmaker: Initiated Measures Require Broader Support,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2016.01.06].
Apparently half of the 24 states with initiative laws require some sort of geographical distribution of signatures. Some geographical distribution rules for initiative petitions have been ruled unconstitutional for violating equal protection of urban residents right to vote and petition. Don Frankenfeld, one of the sponsors of Initiated Measure 22, the Anti-Corruption Act, warns his fellow Republican Bolin of just such a problem:
“An otherwise qualified voter from Minnehaha should not be disqualified from signing a petition,” Frankenfeld said. “In general, I support measures that expand the democratic franchise, not measures that constrain it” [Ferguson, 2016.01.06].
Bolin’s proposal may also disenfranchise racial minority voters:
Considering America’s troubled history with disenfranchising minority voters, it seems like common sense to—at all costs—avoid limiting the power of voters in counties with higher-than-average minority populations. And yet, Rep. Jim Bolin (R-Canton) has proposed exactly this, saying he would introduce a bill that would stop South Dakota’s three most populous counties (Minnehaha, Lincoln, and Pennington) from counting for more than 50% of signatures on an initiated measure. These three counties make up 40% of South Dakota’s population, but 67% of South Dakotans who are African-American and black live in them. Additionally, 49% of Asian South Dakotans and 49% of Hispanic or Latino South Dakotans live in these three counties. While Native Americans have historically been the group most at risk of disenfranchisement in South Dakota, only 21% of Native Americans live in these three counties, so the Representative managed to dodge that bullet.
South Dakota is overwhelmingly white, which means special care must be taken to respect the rights of minority voters [Berk Ehrmantraut, “Rep. Bolin’s Bill Could Seriously Harm Black Voters’ Ability to Sign Petitions,” The Dakota Post, 2016.01.08].
Rep. Bolin may also open up a can or rural-versus-urban worms on other representational issues. Right now, the three largest counties can control 15 out of 35 Legislative districts. Bills can pass the Legislature right now with 70% or 80% of their support coming from Minnehaha, Lincoln, and Pennington counties. With Sioux Falls and Rapid City growing faster than the rest of the state, we could in our lifetimes see those three counties each add one Legislative district, which would mean those three counties could hold a majority in the Legislature and pass bills without any rural support. Since initiatives are the legislative process practiced at large, would Rep. Bolin be willing to apply the same geographical distribution requirement to votes under the Dome: bills may pass the Legislature only if they receive at least 50% of their support from districts outside the big three counties?
And if legislative decisions must have balanced rural-urban support, why not elected officials? If Rep. Bolin is a man of principle, shouldn’t he also propose that statewide candidates must get 50% of their petition signatures and 50% of their votes from Aberdeen, Brookings, Yankton, and all points smaller?
Rep. Bolin is a thoughtful dude, and I’m sure he’ll think through these issues before filing his bill. But let’s watch to see if we get a bill really seeking to discuss the rural-urban divide in all South Dakota politics or just another Republican attack on the initiative process that Republicans find so annoying.