HB 1153 Hamstrings Ballot Measures with 34-County Signature Requirement

The Legislature waged half-war on the popular democracy yesterday, repealing Initiated Measure 22 but withdrawing a bill that would have put the process of amending the constitution out of reach of more grassroots citizens.

Rep. Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham)
Rep. Spencer Gosch (R-23/Glenham)

But yesterday Representative Spencer Gosch and nineteen fellow Republicans opened a new front in the GOP war on voters by filing House Bill 1153, which would beat back initiatives and referenda.

Under current law, if South Dakotans want to put a new proposal on the ballot (initiative) or suspend and put to a public vote a bad law by the Legislature (referendum), they must circulate petitions and gather signatures from 13,871 registered South Dakota voters, 5% of the electorate who turned out for the last gubernatorial election. You can get all of those signatures standing on Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls. I could get all of those signatures going door-to-door in Aberdeen. Chuck Brennan could hire 400 people to go to 200 towns and get 100 signatures each in a week. It doesn’t matter which South Dakotans sign a petition or where you find them; meet the 13,871 threshold, and your issue is on the ballot.

HB 1153 says that’s too easy. Representative Gosch and his Republican friends want petitioners to get 50% of their signatures from at least 33 different counties and the other 50% from at least one other county.

No geographical requirement exists for bills proposed in the Legislature. Representative Gosch only rounded up sponsors from fourteen counties, far short of the 34-county threshold he expects of citizens exercising their legislative power. Shall we put HB 1153 on hold until Representative Gosch can find a few more sponsors (and not all from Minnehaha County)?

The likely intent of such a geographical requirement and the obvious practical impact is to increase the cost of circulating petitions and thus reduce the number of measures that make the ballot. Republicans have said they don’t like the influence of big money in ballot measures, but making it harder to collect signatures means fewer regular folks will successfully petition for ballot measures, and the remaining measures will increasingly come from the big-money groups who can afford to pay for circulators to drive to Selby, Highmore, Gann Valley, and Burke.

HB 1153 isn’t as punitive as it could be. The exact text reads as follows:

Fifty percent of the signatures required under this section shall come from no fewer than thirty-three counties, with the remaining fifty percent to come from any or all remaining counties.

If I want to collect 20,000 signatures (decent cushion over 13,871, for signer and circulator error), I need to get 10,000 from 33 different counties and another 10,000 from “any or all remaining counties.” In the fullest spirit of the law, I could get 304 signatures from each county. But by the letter of the law, I could get 32 signatures from small counties, 9,968 signatures from Pennington County, and 10,000 signatures from Minnehaha County.

Under HB 1153, petitioners could still quite sensibly focus on the two biggest population centers in the state and then spend a week going on a drive to make sure they have a handful of signatures from different counties (I’ll take that roadtrip!) At that point, HB 1153 is more minor nuisance than major petition-killing hurdle or honest guarantee of geographic diversity.

To add to the circulators’ paperwork, no single petition sheet may have signatures from different counties. In other words, if I’m collecting signatures at the state fair, every time someone from a different county comes up to sign, I have to whip out a separate sheet for that voter’s county. Beadle, Spink, Clark, Kingsbury, Miner, Sanborn… either I have to stand there juggling my clipboard, handouts, and a folder of 66 alphabetized sheets, or any time a person from a county different from the last signer walks up, I have to just whip out a clean petition sheet. Under the latter scenario, on a good day at the fair, I might get a hundred or more sheets with just one or two signatures each, just because Spencer Gosch wants to complicate the paperwork.

Requiring separate sheets for each county’s voters could be a bigger hurdle to getting a measure on the ballot than the mostly evadable county requirement. The county requirement creates one more avenue for the Secretary of State to reject petitions that should not be rejected. The Secretary’s 5% random sample of signatures could easily miss the handful of signatures I get from a couple of small counties or oversample the signatures I get from Minnehaha and Pennington County. The Secretary could easily sample closely geographically balanced petition and come up with 49% of signatures from 33 small counties and 51% from two big counties. The Secretary could then reject my petition, and since her House Bill 1035 wants to take away petitioners’ right to challenge petitions in her office and I can’t afford to go to court, my initiative or referendum doesn’t make the ballot.

At best, HB 1153 achieves no goal other than annoying petitioners and the Secretary of State with paperwork. At worst, it is another bill (the fourteenth this Session, by my count, and the second from Gosch, after his unworkable and unconstitutional campaign finance restriction) meant to deter voters from exercising their constitutional right to legislate by initiative and referendum. Either way, HB 1153 is not worth passing.

16 Responses to HB 1153 Hamstrings Ballot Measures with 34-County Signature Requirement

  1. Darin Larson

    Cory, I don’t think this bill is constitutional. This bill values one voter over another voter. Each voter is no longer equal. This is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

    Moreover, the SD constitution’s provisions for initiated measures provide no such differentiation between voters and where they live within the state. This is an unconstitutional restriction on the rights of citizens to pass their own laws.

    In this case, bad motives make bad law.

  2. Porter Lansing

    Under that logic a question on the ballot would have to pass in all those different counties to become law instead of winning an overall vote majority. That would be a de facto electoral college system within a state just to pass a law. Balderdash!

  3. So if you only need one person from 32 counties, couldn’t you set up a petition signing database on DFP? People from smaller counties could offer their names as contacts to sign petitions to fulfill those smaller county requirements.
    i.e. An individual from Clark county could offer to meet you in Watertown one day to sign your petition. This could be facilitated through a database that you keep and offer up for well-intended ballot measures.

  4. Nothing to see here – just one more bill designed by the GOP for no other purpose than to minimize the voice of the common citizen and make it more difficult to challenge the infinite wisdom of those in Pierre.

    Our Republican controlled legislature knows far better than we do, and they will do everything in their power to ensure we know it.

  5. Bob Newland

    Is that guy related to Jason Gant?

  6. Democracy is not wanted in this state. AND it is too hard for these folks.

    “Hey, there were too many ballot initiatives this year, let’s do something about it!” They have two choices:

    – self reflection and trying to see the forest through the trees. Having the light bulb suddenly come on and say that they are doing things wrong in the legislature by not addressing real issues affecting South Dakota/South Dakotans


    – well, we’ll show these folks who is in charge and who knows better than them. Us! The solution to this “problem” is to make the process darn right harder to obtain (they didn’t have to reach too far for this conclusion – this is right out of the “fight abortion” playbook. make it harder/tougher to get so people stop doing it)

    Public servants. Nope, not at all. That name should be changed to “self serving politicians”

  7. Donald Pay

    It violates the SD Constitution.

    I’ve been wondering about a Constitutional Amendment that would start over on the entire Legislature. The current Legislature is corrupt, and should be dissolved.

    Section 1. Any Legislator who served in the 2017 session is permanently term limited from serving in any elective or appointed capacity at any level of government in South Dakota beginning upon enactment.

  8. Richard Schriever

    Require nominating petitions for the legislature to come from sections (square miles) representing 51% of the district.

  9. Porter Lansing

    Good one, Mr. Schriever. No legislator can get on the ballot unless they can get a full petition signed from the most liberal area of Sioux Falls or the most red neck district of say … Clark or Fulton. (My favorite recent memory from Clark was a sign in the Catholic church’s front yard reading, “Hunters and Trappers Welcome … activists stay away!!!) Gotta love the diversity of Codington County. lol

  10. Lanny V Stricherz

    Hey it works so well with the electoral college in Presidential elections why not do the same thing here? I’ll bet proponents of amendment U would have fallen 32 counties short.

  11. Francis Schaffer

    What is the provision if counties merge or consoidate?

  12. Cory, do you think that IM’s and Ref’s make it too easy for people to have their cake and eat it too? I’m not saying that I think we should necessarily get rid of them, but do you think that they have any effect on the overall dynamics of our political system? We all know that being a Republican is the “cool” thing to do in SD, but as I’ve pointed out before, our tendencies in electing legislators doesn’t always match what we demand in IM’s and Ref’s. If they didn’t exist, would that cause people to have to have more of a gut check as to who they really are, and who they really want to vote for? Wouldn’t this have a profound effect on national elections as well? Just something to think about.

  13. That is an interesting possibility, Chip. Maybe the disconnect between how we vote on legislators and how we vote on ballot measures exists specifically because we allow a route to exercise that disconnect. If we couldn’t rely on I&R to check bad decisions, we’d be a lot more interested in booting out bad decision-makers.

    Is there a way to test this hypothesis? Could we look back at past elections and determine any correlation between number of ballot measures and number of incumbents kicked out of office?

  14. 60% of Americans are pro-choice. 60% of Americans support raising the minimum wage (I’m mixed on that but whatever). 60% of Americans support gay marriage. If you couldn’t petition those individually, where would you be? How would you vote? Those figures can be picked apart in any number of different ways. But when you follow elections, the petitioned items seem to be sliding left while representation is going hard right.

    Above all, it’s something to think about.

    Liberals need to open their eyes to some of these things, and not be so chicken little all the time. These things can be defused without immediately dropping down in the mud and going at it.

  15. Now were the ones saying bills won’t pass constitutional muster. We condemn GOP legislators for theoretical opinion and then turn around and do the same thing. If this is, as some have suggested, “unconstitutional”; shouldn’t the LRC with it’s “veteran attorneys” and constitutionally adept bill writers, have cut this off at the knees before it was even filed? Oh wait a minute – I contradict myself… Something isn’t unconstitutional until the supreme court says it isn’t.

  16. Cory: I’m going to step in here with some remarks about ballot measures and elected office holders doing as they please in a lop sided political system that I believe does have influence on how we vote for ballot measures and how we vote for politicians running for office.

    I’m going to use “The Lone Tree” Landfill project as an example. In the early 1990’s, the State was approached by an out of state entrepreneur to construct what amounted to a trash burning and disposal site near the Old Igloo Army Depot near Edgemont. Burlington Northern Railway and Trash disposal giant Browning- Ferris were throwing weight and money at every law maker they could buttonhole. The state legislature slobbered all over themselves endorsing the project as (you might expect this) an economic development windfall for Western SD and particularly the town of Edgemont. (See any similarities between this project and the Power Tech ghost dance?) There was flurry of legislative activity to get the project started in the face of vocal opposition from various parts of the State. NIMBY!!! There were contracts,permitting, agreements and back slapping going on all over the place. Lone Tree Trash and Sewage Ash Project got referred to a public vote and the public overwhelmingly said No Way Jose’. As a result, The developers sued the State of South Dakota under principles of breach of contract and they won. The taxpayer anti’d up a sizeable sum of money and the landscape near igloo now barely shows where heavy equipment began construction. Nearly the same thing happened with Power Tech. For decades, when our legislature gets it in their head that something is good for the state or for business, they just ignore both the volume and content of opposition, do what they are going to do, and more often than not, suffer embarrassment and consequences later on. Minimum wage referendum come to mind? We don’t elect people that represent the majority will. I believe the reason we do that is largely due to a poorly reasoned, apathetic, ignorant perception of law making and a habituated distrust of the enemy; liberalism which, in most respects in SD, is not extreme left wing philosophy. We simply give them free rein until they do something we don’t like (or perhaps become aware of) and we haul back on the reins that starts a rodeo.