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.
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.