As I took petitions door to door around Aberdeen, I didn’t make a big deal about the partisan implications of Senate Bills 69 and 177. Most of my neighbors aren’t interested in party politics; they just want the chance to vote and to have their votes matter. Turning 69 into Referred Law 19 and 177 into Referred Law 20 gives them that chance. That’s good for every voter and good for democracy.
But Democrats—yes, you Democrats, the folks who take your name from that word, democracy—you should be celebrating these successful referrals more than anyone else in South Dakota. These successful referrals show you that your party can get things done, and they give your party the chance to win more battles in 2016.
First, the South Dakota Democratic Party played an indispensable role in completing these petitions. When I took out these referendum petitions on March 26, I didn’t know who would come help. I just wanted to make sure the petitions were out and available as early as possible so that whoever chose to help would have as much time as possible to climb the twin peaks of getting 13,871 signatures for each petition. Less than two weeks later, the South Dakota Democratic Party and the Teamsters Local 120* stepped forward to help. The SDDP dispatched circulators East River and West River. Those circulators collected the majority of the signatures on both petitions. They collected signatures with relatively low error rates compared to recent historical averages for South Dakota ballot measure petitions.
Perhaps most remarkably, those Democratic circulators gathered signatures on two petitions simultaneously. The two petitions challenged two very different bills: on face, SB 69 is arcane election law, while SB 177 is economic policy. SB 69 required all sorts of explaining—seriously, how many citizens interact with the finer legal points of nominating petitions? how many voters immediately grasp the implication of basing a 1% signature requirement on the number of registered voters rather than the number of votes cast in the previous election? and how many dig such minutiae enough to sign a petition about them? SB 177 wasn’t necessarily simple, either: folks would get mixed up as to whether this petition was trying to raise or lower the minimum wage, and we’d have to explain, “This petition stops the state from cutting the minimum wage for kids today, then lets us vote on whether we want to make that cut next year.”
Usually petitioners have their hands full circulating just one petition and explaining all of its ins and outs to signers. The SDDP’s persuasive and well-trained circulators, like the helpers I recruited, tackled two petitions. The SDDP took on an unusually difficult political task and succeeded.
South Dakota Democrats can get things done. Now what can they do with these referenda?
Recall that increasing South Dakota’s minimum wage by ballot initiative was one of the South Dakota Democratic Party’s few bright spots in last year’s mostly dismal mid-term election. Recall that I said the morning after that election that one of the big things South Dakota Democrats need to work on in 2016 is ballot measure synergy, getting voters to translate their clear support for Democratic policies on ballot measures into support for Democratic candidates. South Dakota voters have had difficulty making that connection. 2016 is the Democrats’ big chance to make that connection.
Referred Law 19 and Referred Law 20 were both Republican-sponsored measures. In Referred Law 19, we saw GOP Senate now-Majority Leader Corey Brown and other Republican legislators grab a measure intended to reform petitions and turn it into a measure that protected their political interests by making it harder for candidates to make the ballot. In Referred Law 20, we saw GOP Senator David Novstrup and other Republican legislators ignore the will of the voters expressed just two months before and change the minimum wage that voters thought they had decided at the polls.
Both of these laws are bad. Both of these laws came from Republicans. If we want fewer bad laws, we need to elect fewer Republicans, or at least not re-elect the specific Republicans who thought Referred Law 19 and Referred Law 20 were good ideas.
Read that last paragraph. Read it again. Every Democrat running for office in 2016 needs to read that paragraph out loud to their constituents at every campaign event they attend. Every Democrat needs to tell voters that they should vote no on these bad laws and vote no on the legislators who brought them to us.
Democrats, we can frame the entire 2016 election with these two referred laws (and maybe on whatever disaster comes out of the Blue Ribbon K-12 panel—stay tuned!). We can turn to all the teenagers who turn 18 between now and Election Day and say, “You know who kept you from taking a dollar-an-hour pay cut? Democrats.” We can turn to the 151,000 South Dakotans who voted to raise the minimum wage and say, “You know who stood up for your vote? Democrats.” We can turn to the 109,000 registered Independents in this state and say, “You know who protected your right to run for office? Democrats.” We can turn to every voter in this state and say, “You know who wants to hear your voice at the polls? Democrats.”
That’s how ballot measure synergy works.
There are very good non-partisan reasons to vote down Referred Law 19 and Referred Law 20. But Democrats, defeating these two laws can do some very good things for our partisan interests as well (because, surprise, surprise, friends, sometimes the interests of state and party coincide!).
Democrats grabbed these petitions and placed these measures on the ballot. Now Democrats need to grab these winning issues and run hard with them in 2016. No on 19, No on 20, No on the Republicans who brought us 19 and 20.
*Correction 17:05 CDT: The original version of this post mistakenly attributed material support for these petition drives to the AFL-CIO. I regret the misattribution of support and thank my friends in labor for their help!