Proliferating ballot measures again capture reporter Bob Mercer’s weekend column attention. Mercer’s latest Capitol Notebook notes that with three measures already on the ballot and eleven circulating or about to circulate, South Dakota could match its historic high of fourteen ballot measures set in 1916. Arguably, a 2016 basket of fourteen measures would be more remarkable in terms of direct democracy than the 1916 ballot, since nine of the fourteen measures on the ballot a century ago were amendments placed there by the Legislature. Of today’s fourteen ballot measures, only one is an amendment from the Legislature; one is a fake, decoy amendment from lying payday lending corporations trying to co-opt the initiative process for their private profit; the other twelve are genuine expressions of grassroots democracy. Even if the ballot length is the same as in 1916, twelve genuine voter-driven ballot measures indicate a record level of dissatisfaction with the Legislature’s ability to take care of business in Pierre. (Candidates, that’s a hint.)
While petitioning and winning voter approval for the eleven pending ballot measures takes some sweat, Mercer exaggerates the basis for skepticism about the prospects for those ballot measures. Consider Mercer’s opening comment about signature requirements:
Here is the immediate question about the wild multitude of petitions circulating in South Dakota proposing changes to the state constitution and to state laws.
Is there enough ink? At least 235,801 valid signatures are needed [Bob Mercer, “Direct Democracy Approaching Historic Level for 2016 Election,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.08.].
235,801 signatures (27,741 for each initiated amendment; 13,871 for each initiated law) constitutes 44.47% of the current tally of registered voters. Add the 33% cushion we obtained across the two referendum petitions submitted at the end of June, and current circulators should get signatures from 313,000 voters, more than half the registered pool. That’s a lot of signatures!
But circulators aren’t collecting unique signatures for each petition. My friends and I circulated the petitions for Referred Laws 19 and 20 (the incumbent protection plan and the youth minimum wage), and I’d estimate that a majority of the voters who signed for us signed both petitions. Dems at the Brown County Fair are circulating petitions for the legitimate 36%-rate-cap law and the independent redistricting commission amendment. Some circulators of the various marijuana-related initiated laws are carrying multiple petitions. With all that double duty by circulators and signers, it’s possible that the number of unique signers may be less than half the number of signatures submitted for all petitions this year. Getting a quarter of the electorate to sign ballot measure petitions is still no mean feat, but it’s not as hard as getting the half Mercer suggests petitioners will need.
Mercer then looks at the six elections when South Dakotans had ten or more ballot measures and finds voters approved only 25 out of 86, or 29%. Mercer concludes that “Having so many measures on the ballot didn’t equal success.”
Mercer’s definition of “success” misses the fact that nine of the 61 rejected measures in his count were laws referred by the voters. When citizens refer a law, they usually want to overturn a bad idea from the Legislature. Those nine laws overturned by referendum should thus count as “successes,” at least in the eyes of the organizers. That raises the “success” rate in Mercer’s sample of the six busiest ballot years to 39.5%. That’s lower than the overall “success” rate for ballot measures of 48.7%. However, as I calculated back in March, that difference and the overall correlation between number of ballot measures and success rate is statistically insignifcant.
Mercer’s claim that more ballot measures doesn’t equal success is technically correct. But more ballot measures doesn’t mean failure, either, at least not as far as South Dakota’s historical electoral data indicate.
In other words, rock on, petitioners! Don’t be afraid of putting lots of measures on the ballot. Just scoop up those signatures before the next guy can!
p.s.: If South Dakota voters do the right thing this year, they’ll refuse to sign Lisa Furlong’s fake 18%-rate-cap petition and defend our initiative process from the payday lenders’ foul deception. But even without Furlong’s fakery, we could still break the ballot measure record in 2016: who knows how many bad laws the Legislature will pass next year that we’ll have to refer?