Right now, South Dakota voters retain the exclusive authority to amend the state constitution. Whether amendments are proposed by citizen petition or Legislative vote, all amendments appear on the statewide ballot, and all amendments must receive a simple majority vote to become part of the state constitution.
Republican Senator Jim Bolin, a opponent of direct democracy, proposes to raise the bar for passing an amendment from 50%+1 to 60% of the votes cast. Senator Bolin’s SJR 2 would also require the Legislature to muster a two-thirds vote to put amendments to a public vote. SJR 2 does not affect the initiative process citizens may use to put amendments on the ballot, but Bolin has signed on to SB 67 to immediately change the method of calculating the signatures necessary to put amendments on the ballot and effectively raise the signature count by 88%.
SJR 2 reduces the power of the people. On principle, as with so many other bills that Republicans are promoting this year to undermine past initiatives and raise more hurdles to initiating new measures, reducing the power of the people is wrong.
However, in SJR 2, we are talking about the state constitution. Existing law recognizes the idea that amending the constitution should be harder than changing law. South Dakota doesn’t allow the Legislature to change the state constitution, just as Congress and the President cannot change the U.S. Constitution. South Dakota requires twice as many petition signatures to put constitutional amendments to a vote as it takes to put laws to a vote.
We already make passing amendments harder than passing laws. The question we must resolve on SJR 2 is whether that difference in difficulty needs to be greater.
Vote Thresholds for Amending Other State Constitutions
Across the U.S., thirteen states (including us!) allow the Legislature to submit amendments to a popular vote by simple majority votes of both chambers. Eight states require 60%; seventeen states require 2/3. Eleven states require votes of various sizes in two consecutive legislative sessions.
Delaware requires one 2/3 vote from each chamber, but that’s it—no public vote necessary to amend the Delaware Constitution (to which I say no flippin’ way!).
Once amendments make the ballot, only ten states require anything greater than a simple majority vote of the electorate to amend their state constitutions. Utah, Tennessee, Nebraska, Illinois, and Hawaii condition that simple majority with a vote threshold based on total voter turnout. Colorado requires a simple majority to strike constitutional language but a 55% total to amend or add constitutional language. Minnesota requires 60% to approve amendments from constitutional conventions. Nevada requires a citizen-initiated amendment to win simple majorities at two consecutive elections. New Hampshire requires a 2/3 vote.
So for what it’s worth, compared to other states, South Dakota makes it easier than “normal” for Legislatures to put amendments on the ballot, but we share the simple-majority requirement for passage at the general election with forty states. SJR 2 would make South Dakota’s constitution one of the hardest to amend, comparable in difficulty only to New Hampshire, which flips the SJR 2 numbers and requires a 60% vote of each Legislative chamber and a 2/3 vote of the electorate.