Buffalo Chip Inspires HB 1119 to Require 90-Day Residency to Create New Town

The Senate and House have two days to clear the decks of all of their own bills. The Senate has thirteen Senate bills on today’s calendar alone, so they probably won’t get to House Bill 1119.

But when they do, they will have the chance to talk about the incorporation of Buffalo Chip by non-residents and further complicate the definition of voting residency in South Dakota.

Rep. Thomas Brunner represents Sturgis and the disputed new camper-municipality of Buffalo Chip. Rep. Brunner is the prime sponsor of HB 1119, which increases the number of voters a settlement must have to incorporate from 30 to 45. HB 1119 leaves the number of legal residents necessary at 100 but adds this definition of “legal resident”:

For the purposes of this section, a person is a legal resident in the proposed municipality if the person actually lives in the proposed municipality for at least ninety days or is an active duty member of the armed forces whose home of record is within the proposed municipality [HB 1119, as amended 2016.02.09]. 

This requirement would have made the incorporation of Buffalo Chip impossible, since few if any of the petitioners who turned the renowned Rally campground into a town live there for more than maybe a couple weeks a year.

The House approved this tightening of standards for municipal incorporation on a 48–20 vote. Evidently the House feels that incorporating a town requires a higher bar for residency than voting in a town election:

No person may vote at any municipal election unless the person is registered to vote pursuant to chapter 12-4 and resides in the municipality at the time of the election. For the purposes of this section, a person resides in the municipality if the person actually lives in the municipality for at least thirty days each year, is a full-time postsecondary education student who resided in the municipality immediately prior to leaving for the postsecondary education, or is on active duty as a member of the armed forces whose home of record is within the municipality [excerpt of SDCL 9-13-4.1].

If we allow residents who are away for college to participate in elections back home, why would HB 1119 exclude them from participating in the democratic act of making their home a town? And if we consider thirty days’ residence sufficient to establish the fundamental right to vote, why would we require three times as much time on the ground to allow those legitimate voters to create a town?

HB 1119’s 90-day requirement does align with SDCL 9-14-2’s residency requirement for municipal officers… almost:

Except as otherwise provided, no person may hold any elected municipal office who is not a qualified voter of the municipality and who has not resided therein at least three months next preceding his election or appointment [excerpt of SDCL 9-14-2].

Three months isn’t necessarily 30 days. Dare we parse “resided therein” versus HB 1119’s “actually lives”? And wait a minute: SDCL 9-14-2 seems to say a municipal officer must reside in town continuously for at least three months prior to election or appointment; does HB 1119 make clear that the 90 days of residence to qualify to incorporate a town must take place consecutively, or even within a single year? Does a Buffalo Chip “resident” who camps for a week at thirteen Rallies satisfy the 90-day requirement?

Voting residence creates controversy on this blog. Readers here respectfully differ in views on where RV travelers and other itinerant folks ought to be able to exercise their right to vote. But whatever definition we use for residency, it seems we could use a unified definition for all purposes of political participation in South Dakota. HB 1119 may have reasonable motivations (folks who don’t really live in South Dakota should not be able to create towns and exercise legal authority over people who do live here), but it should tighten its language for uniformity with other statutes on municipalities and residency.

Related: Senator Craig Tieszen (R-34/Rapid City) had proposed SB 164 to tighten the definition of voting residency to keep RVers out of local elections, but he withdrew that bill in committee last week.