Sioux Falls petitioner Bruce Danielson informs me that the city has disqualified every sheet of the initiative petition he submitted last week with the signatures of over 6,400 Sioux Falls voters seeking to block Mayor Huether’s plan to issue bonds to build a $25-million administration building. According to Danielson, the city finance office has thrown out the entire petition because Danielson submitted it on the wrong form.
Danielson says he downloaded the municipal initiative petition form from the Secretary of State’s webpage for petitions. The front of his petition form has the header “MUNICIPAL INITIATIVE PETITION” as prescribed by ARSD 5:02:08:15. The back, however, has the oath from the statewide initiative petition specified by ARSD 5:02:08:07. The first rule of accepting petitions—literally, the first rule specified in ARSD 5:02:08:00—is “(1) The petition is in the form required by this chapter.” The city has thus found the technicality to allow it to toss Danielson’s petition and avoid any further unpleasantness about the city council refusing to call a citywide initiative vote in time to stop the bond sale after October 1.
But did Danielson do anything wrong that justifies thwarting the will of 6,400 real voters seeking a real vote on a real ordinance?
The two petition forms, statewide and municipal, both require a statement of the initiated measure. Danielson’s petition makes that statement and says at the top that it is a “MUNICIPAL INITIATIVE PETITION.” Both forms require signers to provide signature, printed name, residence address, city, date, and county of registration. Danielson’s circulators collected that information. The only real difference between the forms is the oath: the statewide initiative petition circulator’s oath is worded differently from the municipal initiative petition circulator’s oath. Let’s compare the two oaths side by side, with differences highlighted:
|Municipal (what Bruce should’ve sworn)||State: (what Bruce did swear)|
|I, under oath, state that I circulated the above initiative petition, that each signer personally signed this petition in my presence, that either the signer or I added the printed name, the residence address of the signer, the date of signing, and the county of voter registration, that I attest the legality of the signatures and that each person signing this petition is a resident and qualified voter of the municipality of ________________________.||I, under oath, state that I circulated the above petition, that each signer personally signed this petition in my presence, that I made reasonable inquiry and to the best of my knowledge each person signing the petition is a qualified voter in the county indicated on the signature line, that no state statute regarding petition circulation was knowingly violated, and that either the signer or I added the printed name, the residence address of the signer, the date of signing, and the county of voter registration.|
At some later date, I look forward to visiting with the Board of Elections to hear why the language for municipal and statewide initiative petition circulator oaths has so diverged. But for now, let’s figure what substantive difference that divergence makes in the oaths sworn by Danielson and his circulators.
In swearing the incorrect statewide oath, Danielson’s circulators still swore to the same petition meat and potatoes required by the municipal oath. They swore under oath that…
- They circulated the petition sheets.
- They personally witnessed each signature.
- Either they or the signers added the printed name, residence address, date, and county of registration.
- As far as they know, each signer is a registered voter.
They diverge, perhaps crucially, in swearing to the signers’ eligibility to sign. Under the municipal oath, the circulators “attest” that each signer lives in the municipality. Under the statewide oath, the circulators swear that “to the best of my knowledge” each signer is a qualified voter in the county indicated. But the statewide oath requires circulators to swear they obtained the “residence address of the signer,” which includes the city. In that line of the statewide circulator’s oath, circulators swear the same thing—every signer is a resident of the city that they wrote down, in this case, Sioux Falls—that they would have had they signed the municipal circulator’s oath.
The statewide oath is even more demanding than the municipal oath. The statewide oath requires circulators to say how they can attest to the legality of the signatures: “I made reasonable inquiry….” It also requires them to swear that “no state statute regarding petition circulation was knowingly violated….” That part of the oath would encompass the circulators’ obedience to SDCL 9-20-1, which allows only residents of a municipality to sign initiative petitions for that municipality, and SDCL 9-20-9, which requires circulators to “verify that each person signing the petition is a resident and qualified voter of the municipality,” and numerous other petition-related chapters and verses that the municipal oath doesn’t so broadly invoke.
Danielson and his circulators appear to have petitioned in good faith. No one tried to pull a fast one. No one lied to voters or to the city. Somehow, incredibly, two forms got mingled (transporter malfunction?), and good-faith circulators swore an oath that differs from the oath prescribed by state rule. However, the oath sworn accomplishes the same thing as the oath prescribed and then some.
SDCL 2-1-11 requires that statewide petitions be “liberally construed, so that the real intention of the petitioners may not be defeated by a mere technicality.” If the spirit of that law applies to municipal petitions as well, then Danielson’s mis-oathed petition should stand, and the will of the voters should be heard.