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.