Attorney General Marty Jackley yesterday released explanations for not one but two initiated constitutional amendments from Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson, founders of TakeItBack.org. These are the first ballot measures from Weiland and Samuelson’s new initiative organization to see the official light of day.
Interestingly, the measures, as well as AG Jackley’s explanations, are almost identical. Both propose a nonpartisan blanket primary for selecting candidates for all county, state, and federal elected offices, except for President and Vice-President. (The nonpartisan blanket primary is also called jungle, qualifying, top-two, and Louisiana. Preferences, readers?) All candidates would appear on a single primary ballot, without any indication of party affiliation. All registered voters could participate in the primary, regardless of their party affiliation. The top two primary vote-getters would square off in the general election. In races for more than one seat (like State House and some county commission races), the number of candidates advancing to the general would be twice the number of seats at stake.
The top-two primary would require all candidates to kick into high gear in the spring for the primary. Think about last year’s Senate race. Rick Weiland was the only Democrat to run; he didn’t have to wage a primary campaign, and he could let the five Republicans in the race pound on each other until they nominated Mike Rounds. The two Independents, Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie, also skipped the primary and advanced straight to the general election ballot. Under the top-two amendment, Weiland, Pressler, and Howie would all have needed to mobilize their campaigns to attack each other and every Republican candidate in a desperate fight for the number-two spot on the general election ballot behind Mike Rounds. Among other alternate-history speculation on jungle-primary tactics, I’d suggest that that mad scramble would have prompted the hard conservatives on the ballot—Howie, Stace Nelson, Larry Rhoden, and Jason Ravnsborg—to beat Rep. Steve Hickey to the punch in suing to keep Annette Bosworth from making the ballot and siphoning away a precious 5.7% of the vote.
The top-two primary appears to make life harder for Independents and third-party candidates. Where Howie and Pressler last year could go straight to the general election ballot and fight just one major battle, they would have to fight two ballot battles, like everyone else, to win. Ditto for third parties. If past performance held, Independents and third parties would far more rarely make the general election ballot.
The top-two amendment specifies identical petition signature requirements for all candidates based on voter turnout in the previous election for the office they seek. The amendment leaves determination of the signature numbers to the Legislature, so we can’t say for sure whether signature requirements would rise or fall for any given party or Independents. But the Independent deadline would surely be moved up a month from the last Tuesday in April to the last Tuesday in March to line up with partisan candidates’ deadline.
The top-two primary makes life especially harder for candidates for Attorney General, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Public Utilities Commissioner, and Commissioner of School and Public Lands. Right now, parties nominate those candidates at their summer conventions. (Someone remind me: how do Independents run for those offices?) The process goes mostly without trouble, but as we saw last summer, it allows grudge-beating scam artists like Chad Haber to make the statewide ballot by hijacking a third-party convention with fifteen dupes. The top-two amendment would require these second-tier candidates to undergo the petition and primary process as well. That means more shoe leather and more public scrutiny of these state-level candidates.
But notice that if the top-two primary is fully nonpartisan, then petitioning just got easier for party candidates. If any voters can participate in the unified primary, then any voter should be able to sign any petition to nominate any candidate. Democrats won’t have to hunt down only Democrats for signatures; they’ll be able to take any registered voter’s signature, just as we do on ballot measure petitions. So even if the number of signatures that members of certain parties must get goes up (don’t get any bright ideas, Corey Brown), party candidates should at least get a broader field of potential signers.
The amendment does solve one local election problem. Suppose only two candidates stand for sheriff, and they are both from the same party. Current primary rules disenfranchise Democrats and Independents and leave the choice of sheriff to local Republicans (see Lake County, 2006). The same happens at the Legislative level in districts dominated by one party: if only Democrats run in District 1, and if only Republicans run in District 30, more than half of the electorate in each district gets no say in picking their legislators. The top-two primary gives every registered voter a say.
The amendments differ only in one additional proposal: the second amendment requires secret ballots for elections in the Legislature of Speaker of the House, House Speaker Pro Tempore, Senate President Pro Tempore, and all committee chairs and vice chairs. That provision prompts the only difference in the Attorney General’s explanation: in addition to the “substantial re-write of state election laws” that he says the nonpartisan top-two primary will require, A.G. Jackley says the Legislative-secret-ballot amendment “may be challenged and declared invalid under the State Constitution.”
Funny: I didn’t think an amendment to the State Constitution could be declared invalid under the State Constitution. But hey, I guess I’ll get to work on declaring the payday lenders fake 18%-rate-cap amendment unconstitutional, too. And if secret-ballot requirements are good for unions, why not for the Legislature?
The whole concept behind secret ballots is to avoid any possibility of intimidation or threat. I think that’s very important in our system to preserve that secret ballot right [Senator Dave Knudson, in “Unions, Businesses Square off on Ballot Measure,” AP via Rapid City Journal, 2010.09.19].
The secret ballot for Legislative elections seems a separate issue from the top-two primary, but there is a connection. If we elect legislators on a nonpartisan ballot, we may want them to have some more freedom to vote across party lines once they get to Pierre. Secret ballots for Speaker, Pro Tem, and committee leadership would take away one screw that caucus leadership can put to party members and perhaps take partisanship out of some Legislative decisions.
But will Weiland and Samuelson keep that provision? They have two amendments available now to submit to the Secretary of State for approval and circulation. Will they choose their slightly more complicated measure? Or will they decide that a top-two primary is reform enough for now to challenge partisan politics in South Dakota?