The South Dakota Legislature is considering a petition reform that could completely eliminate the petitioning process for candidates with money.
Senate Bill 95, served up hot this morning, would allow candidates to buy their way onto the ballot. SB 95 leaves in place the current petition process, under which candidates must obtain signatures from registered voters equal to 1% of the votes cast for their party’s gubernatorial candidate in the last gubernatorial election (or 1% of the total gubernatorial vote for our oppressed Independent candidates). But if a candidate doesn’t want to burn up all that sweat and shoe leather, if actually going out and talking to voters and checking signatures is too darned hard for a candidate, Senate Bill 95 would let that candidate throw money at the problem. Candidates could simply send a “notice of candidacy” to the Secretary of State plus a filing fee equal to 1% of the salary for the office they are seeking, and presto! Money puts them on the ballot.
At current rates, candidate filing fees would be as follows:
The prime sponsorship of Senator Ernie Otten (R-6/Tea), no great thinker when it comes to petition matters, does little to inspire my confidence in the wisdom of Senate Bill 95. Gathering signatures has not appeared to pose an undue burden on candidates seeking to get on the South Dakota ballot. Senate Bill 95 seems more a response of politicos made nervous by the Attorney General’s willingness to take petition fraud seriously.
Gathering signatures has only been a problem for candidates who either cannot or don’t want to follow the rules for petitions. Those rules currently serve as a basic civics test for candidates to demonstrate they have some nominal ability to read and follow the laws that they are asking for the power to change. If those rules pose a problem to candidates (and I contend they don’t, at least not one that is addressed by Senate Bill 95), the simple personal-responsibility solution is for each candidate to study a little harder and follow the rules, which would be good for everybody. Strangely, Senator Otten and eight Republican co-sponsors choose a bureaucratic, big-money response where they let people with money escape those rules.
I understand that circulating petitions can be viewed in monetary terms. Campaign contributions, just like signatures, signal some level of popular support. But signatures ensure an equality of voice that a filing fee does not. It takes me the same effort to gather a hundred signatures as it does the richest man in Brown County. If it takes 2,000 signatures to make the ballot (that’s just a bit more than what Republicans Kristi Noem and John Thune have to collect this year to run), each signer counts for exactly the same one two-thousandth of the authority of that petition. Add a filing-fee option, and the voices of the 2,000 people who put John Thune on the ballot are given the same weight as one person, maybe not even a South Dakota voters, who hands a challenger $1,740 to cover her filing fee.
Think of the petition problem in terms of parliamentary procedure. Organizations conducting business by Robert’s Rules of Order generally require motions to have a second as a simple test to ensure that more than one person thinks an idea is worth discussing. The petition process is like asking for a second from the electorate, a small percentage of voters willing to submit a candidate for general consideration. SB 95 is like adding a provision to parliamentary procedure that says that instead of getting a second, a member can simply shout a motion and throw money at the chair.
I understand there are many ways in which money buys access to the political process. But Senate Bill 95 adds another avenue for money to influence the political process without identifying any substantial problem that needs to be solved. Senate Bill 95 feels neither right nor necessary.