I&R Task Force Should Recommend Multiple Citizen Panels, One for Each Initiative on Ballot

The Interim Task Force on Initiative and Referendum meets tomorrow to consider twenty draft proposals for reforming (and, all too frequently, hurting) South Dakota’s ballot measure process. Among the proposals are three drafts creating panels to review proposed ballot measures. I’ve already dismissed the Reed/Otten proposal as Legislative interference in direct democracy. It’s labeled a “Citizen Initiative Review Commission,” but Rep. Reed and Senator Otten don’t include any citizens not already in government on the panel.

The other two proposed bills—Draft #101 and Draft #108—open the door for the appointment of regular citizens to review ballot measures after they have been certified for the ballot. That’s a definite improvement over the Reed/Otten proposal, which would impose its panel review before ballot question sponsors can circulate their petitions, meaning the panel would be wasting its own time reviewing several initiatives that would not get enough signatures to make the ballot and might increase the number of measures that don’t make the ballot by delaying and thus reducing the time available for signature-gathering.

Bob Mercer suggests that if we adopt citizen review panels for ballot measures, we should have a separate panel dedicated to each topic covered by the initiatives*. The citizen review panels in Oregon go further and give each initiative a separate panel (“The Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission shall… convene a separate citizen panel to review each selected measure“). Draft #101, attributed to the task force, also appears to envision multiple panels:

The State Board of Elections shall convene a panel of registered voters, chosen pursuant to rules promulgated by the board under chapter 1-26, to review and evaluate each measure certified for placement on the ballot pursuant to § 2-1-17. Each panel shall conduct a public hearing chaired by a member of the board to receive testimony from proponents and opponents of each measure under evaluation [Interim Task Force on I&R, Draft #101, Section 1, 2017.08.03].

The language isn’t perfectly clear, but “each panel” in the second sentence appears to envision.

Draft #108, attributed to task force chair Dr. Emily Wanless, charges one Citizen Review Commission with hearing all initiatives:

The commission shall conduct hearings for any proposed initiated measure and initiated amendment to the Constitution certified for placement on the next general election ballot pursuant to § 2-1-17. For each initiated measure and initiated amendment to the Constitution, the commission shall conduct not less than two hearings to be held in separate locations in the state. During each hearing for each initiated measure and initiated amendment the commission shall take testimony from the petition sponsor or the sponsor’s designee regarding the purpose of the initiated measure or initiated amendment and take public testimony. After any hearing conducted under this section, the commission shall provide an objective written summary not to exceed three hundred words for each initiated measure or initiated amendment to the Constitution to be included in a voter information brochure under section 6 of this Act [Interim Task Force on I&R, Draft #108, Section 4, 2017.08.15].

Since statehood in 1889, the most initiatives we’ve had to deal with on one ballot was eight in 2006, followed by seven last year. (Remember: the citizens review panels wouldn’t have to hold hearings on referred laws or legislatively proposed amendments, since those measures get hearings during the Legislative Session… although Draft #101 appears to call for hearings on every measure on the ballot, not just citizen initiatives.) Over the last 19 elections, we’ve averaged 2.2 measures per year.

Seating a separate panel for each measure would ease the workload on each participant. Citizens selected for this honorable duty could study their assigned measure more deeply and put more effort into the summaries they would publish. Multiple panels would also prevent one panel from proposing its idiosyncratic bias on all ballot measure explanations. Mercer’s on track, and Oregon and Draft #101 have the right idea: one panel per ballot measure!

*Correction 08:58 CDT: I originally misstated that Mercer called for one panel per initiative. However, as Mercer points out below, he suggests one panel per topic. Thus, when we have ballot measures dealing with the same issue, as we did in 2016 with the payday lenders’ decoy amendment competing with the honest grassroots payday lending rate cap, he’d have one panel deal with both measures.

5 Responses to I&R Task Force Should Recommend Multiple Citizen Panels, One for Each Initiative on Ballot

  1. Bob Mercer

    Actually I suggested one panel per topic.

  2. One panel per topic… ah! I see the distinction! Payday lending, marijuana, etc. I can see the efficiency there, especially in a situation like the payday lending issue that drew directly competing ballot measures.

    But consider this: suppose we have two competing measures on a certain topic. One panel could impose a bias on the topic. It would be interesting to empanel two separate sets of citizens and get their independent opinions on the competing measures.

  3. Donald Pay

    All of this seems to assume the process stays the way it is now, and you just add this committee, however it is structured, onto the process. Nay to any of that.

    I like the committee idea, but it should replace nearly all of the upfront bureaucracy and ridiculously early deadlines. It should not add complexity and time to an already far to complex a process. I can see positives in each of the suggested ways to structure the committee, and those should be further discussed, as well as just using a Legislative Committee to run the hearings (nothing else, just run the hearings).

    Yes, I said it. I’m not sure I would want a Legislative Committee to do this task, and it would depend on how it is done. I’m throwing it out there because it would cost less and there would be less time needed since it is already in place. You could get rid of the AG opinion and give that function to the LRC at the same time.

  4. Donald is the strongest defender of the initiative and referendum process. Skip the committees; I’m willing to make Donald the I&R czar. :-)

    Unlike most of the changes the Republicans may try to impose on I&R after this task force finishes its show, a real citizens review committee conducting public hearings after the petition process is over and Secretary of State certifies measures for the ballot could actually serve the public interest, providing useful information and a public forum for the sponsors and other interested parties.

    Now that Donald mentions it, why do we need an A.G.’s opinion before circulating or even on the ballot? Bills in the Legislature require no such opinion. The A.G. can weigh in like everyone else in committee hearings, but the bill itself bears no imprint of any other branch of government. Let LRC approve an honest, brief title for the petition and the ballot. Make the bill text accessible to every citizen (online in searchable, editable HTML format, which the LRC and SOS currently do not do and which petition sponsors themselves have been really bad about). Remove the gatekeepers and let the people decide.

  5. Donald Pay

    Only I can fix it, Cory.