South Dakotans passed four of the ten measures on their 2016 ballot. Can you find a pattern?
| Ballot Measure
|Amendment R: Regents/vo-tech authority split
|Amendment S: Glodt’s crime victims bill of rights
|Amendment T: Independent Redistricting Commission
|Amendment U: Usury! Payday Lender Protection Clause
|Amendment V: Open Nonpartisan Primary
|Initiated Measure 21: 36% Payday Loan Rate Cap
|Initiated Measure 22: Anti-Corruption Act
|Initiated Measure 23: “Fair Share” Union Dues
|Referred Law 19: Incumbent Protection Act
|Referred Law 20: Youth Minimum Wage Cut
The only obvious pattern is that voters appeared to have been humming Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in reverse as they went through the ballot. Yes-Yes No-No-No Yes-Yes No-No-No.
The ballot measures were the only portion of the ballot where I aligned with a majority of South Dakotans. My neighbors agreed with me on R, U, 19, 20, 21, and 22. More South Dakotans went against my advice on S, T, V, and 23.
I’d like to posit a pattern of care for economic justice in South Dakota voters’ choices. Even as voters overwhelmingly elected Republicans, they overwhelmingly rejected the Republican effort to cut the minimum wage for young workers and insult the legislative authority of voters to boot. In even greater numbers, they supported imposing an industry-crushing 36% rate cap on payday loans (go ahead: the lying payday lenders deserve some crushing). Voters slipped a bit when at least 43,000 of those who voted for IM 21 also voted for U, which, had it passed, would have negated their vote on 21. But South Dakota voters don’t trust unions to fight for their economic justice: they voted by the biggest margin, 79.7% to 20.3%, to kill the proposal to require workers to pay “fair share” union dues for the extra work their unionized colleagues do to protect their labor rights.
Once the post-general/year-end campaign finance reports are in, I may posit some pattern of money buying results. However, IM 21 seems to put the lie to that hypothesis right away. The payday lenders spent millions to lie and cheat their way to preserving their profits. The sponsors of the 36% rate mounted no extensive fundraising campaign, but even without a big budget, the rate-cappers seem to have taken advantage of all the free bad publicity the payday lenders brought on themselves with their thug petition tactics.
Amendment S had plenty of money behind it, but it passed less on its wealth (and not at all on its legal and practical merits) and more on the absence of organized, funded opposition from legal experts in the state. What little expertise leaked out into the public discourse was overwhelmed by the blunt instrument of emotional appeals that sold the costly and redundant S to almost 60% of the electorate. Maybe S rode some anti-elitist, anti-information, grab-your-id Trump coattails; we can only hope the gut-driven S will not do as much damage as our Presidential mistake.
It is tempting to say that Trump voters (and South Dakota gave Trump his seventh-highest state tally, so maybe we will be spared the stormtroopers for a while) won’t vote for complicated ballot measures, but amazingly, out of Rick Weiland’s trifecta of reforms, the far simpler measures—getting rid of gerrymandering with an independent redistricting commission and holding an open, nonpartisan primary—failed while the most complicated—the Anti-Corruption Act—passed, barely. In the reality-TV, barroom-blowhard, anti-politician howl of the Trump surge, “Welfare for Politicians!” sounded like the most devastatingly effective attack-slogan on the airwaves. Backed with Koch Brothers’ money, that attack on 22 was the perfect analogue to billionaire Trump’s path to victory at the polls. But at least 17% of Trump’s South Dakota voters (and probably more, because no conscientious Gary Johnson Libertarian would vote for 22’s 70 sections of increased regulations on political speech) made no connection between the Trump and Koch medicine shows and voted for a bill that their billionaire sirens were telling them not to.
I really, really hoped that the ballot measures represented popular disgust with the Legislative status quo. How can voters be satisfied with a Legislature that makes so many mistakes of omission and commission that it draws seven popular initiatives and two referenda? Voters certainly agreed with me that making it harder to run for office and cutting kids’ minimum wage were bad ideas. The No votes on 19 and 20 were the fourth- and third-highest winning percentages of the ten ballot measures. Yet those same voters returned the same erring Republican legislators to Pierre with reinforcements, who can insulate the 2017 Legislature from political repercussions that should arise when the biggest GOP majorities since 1954 turn their knives toward the popularly approved 36% rate cap and the Anti-Corruption Act.
To put the ongoing disconnect between voters’ actions on policy and on policymakers in highest relief, look at the results from Aberdeen. District 3’s Senator David Novstrup sponsored the youth minimum wage cut in 2015. David and his dad Rep. Al voted for that cut. Voters at the three voting centers in District 3 (not all D-3 voters, but the closest we can get without precinct voting) voted to kill 20 by 74.2%, three full percentage points higher than the statewide No vote. Yet those same voters gave Al 62.1% of the vote over me, the guy who gave them the chance to save kids wages.
The total votes cast belie any suggestion of ballot fatigue. The two measures drawing the most participation were S and 20, the second and last measures on the ballot. The measures voters found least interesting were 19 and T, the ninth and third measures listed. Or look at it this way: the first two measures listed were #6 and #1 for votes cast; the last two were #10 and #2.
Perhaps the total votes cast are not a product simply of complication but relative complication or arguments for and against. S explains itself in its description: “crime victims bill of rights.” Boom! Sold! The case against S requires lawyerly talk of due process, current statute, resources—zzzz…and you must support wifebeaters! Ditto 20: cut wages for kids? That’s not fair! Argument done. Defending the cut requires David Novstrup to come out and whimper absurdities about economic opportunity or dad Al to talk Newspeak. Give voters and issue with one straightforward pitch and one complicated pitch, and they’ll jump on and vote in bigger numbers.
Meanwhile, the lowest-participation measures were T and 19, which revolve around the wonky arcaneries of drawing election maps and requiring petition signatures of candidates. We bloggers love talking about such things, but not many other people do. Just say, “gerrymandering!” and both Pro and Con on T have to stop and explain to 90% of folks what we’re talking about before we get to our arguments. Redistricting and petitioning are important topics, but fewer voters wanted to mess with them.
* * *
South Dakota, we did some good last night. By stopping Referred Law 19, we kept Republicans from imposing onerous and unconstitutional burdens on candidates. We defended young people and the initiative process by killing Referred Law 20. We beat lying, scheming, bullying loan sharks by approving Initiated Measure 21 and rejecting Amendment U. We got ourselves a state ethics commission (which Governor Daugaard needs to appoint by January 31, 2017!) by passing Initiated Measure 22. And, while this final vote made no practical difference in anyone’s daily life right now, we rectified fifty years of unconstitutional non-Regental governance of our vo-tech schools by rewriting the state constitution with Amendment R.
Most importantly, we showed that We the People can tackle a long ballot and make informed, conscientious decisions about the laws under which we shall live. Let’s do it again in 2018!