One of my District 3 legislators, Republican Drew Dennert, uses a guest spot on the SDGOP spin blog to encourage people to approach ballot measure petitions with what I’m willing to call healthy skepticism. Rep. Dennert doesn’t mention any of this year’s ballot measures specifically (and he needs to be careful, since his Speaker of the House G. Mark Mickelson is running around promoting two of them, and maybe a third soon), but he does mention the crime victims’ bill of rights that we passed last year as an example of a ballot measure pushed by shady out-of-staters who didn’t tell Dennert the whole story when they lured him into signing their petition. (We’ll let Drew work that out with Jason Glodt, the South Dakota front man for that ballot measure who is now working for Republican Marty Jackley’s campaign for governor.)
What does Rep. Dennert say we voters should do when approached by petition circulators? Slow down and ask questions:
A great question is to ask whether the measure’s sponsor is from South Dakota or not….
…it’s worth asking the petition circulator whether they are being paid or are a volunteer – it’s the difference between doing a job or believing in a cause.
…And finally ask to read the Attorney General’s explanation of the measure, which is on the back of every petition in its entirety [Rep. Drew Dennert, “Guest Column: Uncovering The Real Agenda Behind Ballot Measures,” Dakota War College, 2017.08.14].
One may cynically view Dennert’s advice as predictable Republican discouragement of ballot measures. But I’m feeling generous today. Neither of the questions Dennert recommends are out of line. I go further and ask the circulators themselves where they are from. (If they sound dodgy, I might try to trick them into pronouncing the name of our state capital.) Heck, ask petitioners why they are petitioning. If they’re getting a check, ask them who writes their checks, an actual South Dakotan or an out-of-state petition firm. Ask whatever else you want about circulators’ bona fides as concerned fellow South Dakotans. Any petitioner who won’t answer your questions doesn’t deserve your name, address, and signature.
I hesitate at Dennert’s advice to read the Attorney General’s explanations. A.G. Marty Jackley’s summaries of the ballot questions so far this year haven’t been atrociously biased, but they generally leave out lots the detail, context, and rationale that help people understand why a ballot measure is circulating. And all too often, A.G. Jackley sandbags ballot questions with warnings that they may be unconstitutional or conflict with federal law without giving any explanation of the grounds for such warnings.
Of course, if you want to read the A.G.’s explanation, you shouldn’t have to ask for it or for the circulator’s paid/volunteer status; state law requires that circulators provide that information in written form to every signer. (Plus, the A.G.’s explanation should be on the front of every petition.) Technically, I suppose circulators could contend that the law doesn’t require handing out that information to potential signers, but that’s perfectly reasonable information for anyone to request, and if circulators balk even the slightest at handing it over, turn your back and walk away.
Drew Dennert is right: we should take our time when signing petitions to make sure we are backing ballot measures that are in South Dakota’s best interest. But keep an eye on Representative Dennert, and make sure his reasonable advice doesn’t slide into a legislator’s effort to protect his power by hoodwinking voters into thinking all ballot measures are bad.