I joined sixteen other South Dakotans who testified to the Legislature’s Initiative and Referendum Task Force yesterday. You can hear my comments at 74:00 in the SDPB audio.
My local paper edits Bob Mercer’s coverage to move my testimony up a few paragraphs but adds the odd identifier, “who ran unsuccessfully for Legislature as Democrat.” For a story on initiative and referendum, AAN could have more relevantly identified me with, “who sponsored two successful referendum petitions in the 2016 election cycle.” But that’s a minor editorial choice; let’s focus on what I said about our initiative and referendum process.
I focused on disabusing the task force of the assumption on which Republican legislators predicated it, the claim that it is too easy to put initiatives and referenda on the ballot. Anyone who thinks ballot measures are easy either hasn’t circulated a ballot measure petition or has a billion dollars of mad money in his pocket.
We impose some justifiable hurdles between citizens and the ballot. We don’t want any old wild idea ending up on the ballot, not without some nominal demonstration of public support. But we say the same about candidates: rather than letting individuals place unilaterally place themselves on the ballot, we expect them to solicit the support of some neighbors and pass the basic civics quiz of following petition rules. These hurdles are a reasonable response to the reasonable notion that some iconoclastic proposals and candidates could be so harmful, so “malicious” (the word Jay Davis used in testimony preceding mine) that they don’t even deserve a vote, let alone popular approval.
But if ballot measures and candidates can both do harm, which can do more? To put it concretely, suppose I want to change South Dakota. How do I have a greater impact (or, from my opponents’ perspective, do more damage): by creating or changing one law with a ballot measure, or by becoming Governor?
“Governor Cory Heidelberger,” I proposed to the committee. The laughter in the room suggested my point was taken. So does the focus of the political establishment: political parties and PACs work much harder to win the Governor’s office and other elected positions than they do to win ballot measures.
So if we erect barriers to the ballot to prevent bad things from going to a vote, we would expect to see higher barriers to higher risks. Yet in South Dakota, the barriers to bad ballot measures are far higher than the barriers to bad candidates. If I want to run for Governor, I need to collect about 700 signatures. I could do that on a busy weekend with some volunteers in a weekend in Aberdeen.
If I want to put a new law on the ballot, I need to collect about 14,000 signatures. If I want to put a constitutional amendment to a vote, I need about 28,000 signatures. Just by signature count, it is 20 to 40 times harder to put a bad idea on the ballot than to put a bad candidate on the ballot.
But ballot measures face even more barriers than inordinately large signature counts. If I run for Governor, I can take out my petition on January 1 and start collecting signatures immediately. If I decide to float a ballot measure, I have to wait up to 75 days to start circulating my petition while it undergoes review by two state government offices. The Legislative Research Council gets 15 days to analyze and provide feedback on my ballot measure. Then the Attorney General gets 60 days to study and compose a a public explanation of my measure. Only after those two reviews can I take my proposal to the people.
Even then, when I circulate my petition, I have to give every potential signer a copy of the Attorney General’s explanation. Imagine if we made a similar demand of candidates: “Hi, I’m Democrat Cory Heidelberger, and I’m running for Governor, but before you sign my petition, here’s what Republican Attorney General Marty Jackley, who also happens to be running for Governor, thinks of my qualifications and political agenda.”
My contention is not that we should subject candidates to background checks by an elected rival or that we should increase the number of signatures candidates have to get. My contention is that, relative to the reasonable requirements placed on candidates to make the ballot, we have already imposed more than enough burdens on ballot measure sponsors to win access to the ballot. The Legislature should leave initiative and referendum alone and let the voters evaluate ballot measures for themselves.
Related Comedy: Following my testimony, Mark Lee, my old Lake Herman neighbor testifying on behalf of the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, urged the committee “based on very recent testimony and a newly developed deep and abiding fear that I would encourage you to raise the number of signatures required to run for Governor… significantly.” We all laughed.