In response to Bob Mercer’s suggestion that South Dakota require petition circulators to register, provide photo ID and proof of residence, and sign a statement pledging to follow all state election laws, Pat Powers says we don’t need more government, just more power for the state office where he briefly worked:
Do we really need a licensure board for petitioners? Or, is what we really need a shift of responsibility?
When I was in the SOS office, concerns over problems in the election process came up then as well, as they had with Chris Nelson before us, Joyce Hazeltine before him, etc. The primary problem is the the Secretary of State’s office is not designed legally to be anything except a very administrative filing agency for the documents of government.
…Why not give the Secretary of State more authority to reject – or better yet, refer petitions upon suspicion of impropriety? And as opposed to the Board of Elections being a mostly useless appendage dealing with administrative matters and suggesting legislation, why not give them a quasi-judicial function? Let them sit in judgement on whether to reject or accept petitions and candidate controversies, and leave the bad, bad stuff to the AG? [Pat Powers, “Do We Need More Government to Fix People’s Screw-Ups When They’re Trying to Fix Government?” Dakota War College, 2015.09.19]
Of course, with his Republican pals circulating a petition he likes, Powers doesn’t want more regulation, just more authority for entities over which his Republican cronies enjoy pull. To Powers, a registry that would hold all circulators equally accountable just smells like big government.
With the legislature session coming up this next month, it may be long past time for elected officials to look at how easy for outside groups to put a measure on the ballot in South Dakota.
Our State pioneered the initiative and referendum process. South Dakota was the first state to adopt initiative and referendum on a statewide level, and did so in 1898, setting an example for the rest of the country. But when we did so, it was about a personal, street level democracy. The system didn’t envision people collecting signatures for a profit. Ballot measures (and for running for office) should be about the ideals of Democracy. Not about which special interest group has deep pockets to pay circulators.
It’s time for paid signature collectors to go. And it would be a great step by the incoming legislature to make it happen [Pat Powers, “Animal Rights Groups Looking at State Ballot Measures. It’s Time to End Paid Petition Circulators,” Dakota War College, 2014.12.22].
Lederman made a similar call in a since-deleted blog post:
Shouldn’t ballot measures come from South Dakotans and not the out of state group with the biggest checkbook? If a candidate is so unqualified and so uninspiring that they can’t gather a group of volunteers to collect signatures, should they be able to shortcut the process by writing a check?
The answer is no. Democracy in South Dakota has never been for sale. And neither should ballot access. It’s time to end paid signature collection entirely, and be rid of it [Dan Lederman, quoted in Pat Powers, “State Sen Dan Lederman: Time to End Paid Petition Circulators,” Dakota War College, 2014.06.29].
Notice that Powers and Lederman called for banning paid circulators when confronted with candidates and ballot measures they didn’t like. Now with Republican Jason Glodt hiring paid petition circulators and managers (come on, you think that circulator and his driver out front of Walmart are volunteers?) for a measure the GOP establishment appears to favor, Powers doesn’t revisit that paid circulator ban. Go figure.
Powers may not be suffering simple partisan selective amnesia. He may have gotten the message I sent last December, that the Constitution won’t let us ban paid circulators. I’m working as a paid circulator myself (on the anti-gerrymandering redistricting petition), so while I would rather every ballot measure come from grassroots volunteerism, I recognize the realities of the moment and don’t mind being paid for my efforts on behalf of fair elections.
But with shady circulators using illegal and deceptive tactics to secure signatures for fake, corporate-backed, sabotaging ballot measures, it seems we need some action to restore public in their neighbors standing out front of the courthouse asking for signatures. What can we do?
I recognize that Mercer’s circulator registry adds another layer of bureaucracy and hinders efforts to recruit volunteers to circulate. When I’m circulating, a signer on the street will occasionally volunteer to carry a petition or two. Having to ask that person to go to the courthouse and fill out a form before taking a petition home to circulate among family and friends cuts into volunteer opportunities.
But I can also see where a registry could prevent a nefarious blocking tactic. Suppose some of the fake 18% rate cap petitioners shift tactics, grab copies of the genuine 36% rate cap petition, circulate that petition all around town, and then never submit those signatures, thus depriving the genuine 36% rate cap movement of thousands of signatures that could make the difference between making the ballot and not. Mercer’s circulator registry could provide some accountability: petition organizers could see who’s carrying their petitions, verify that every person on that list is legitimately helping, and alert the Secretary of State and Attorney General to any suspicious circulators who appear to be falsely carrying their petition to steal and suppress signatures.
What else could we do to ensure the integrity of the petition process? Let’s brainstorm:
- Adopt Joel Rosenthal’s brilliant plan: require all paid circulators to register, obtain sales tax licenses, pay sales tax on all fees they charge for their services, and wear big badges identifying themselves as paid circulators.
- Require all petition circulators to wear badges identifying themselves, their employers, and their contact information.
- Restrict petition circulation for statewide ballot issues and candidates to South Dakota registered voters who voted in the last statewide general election.
- Without raising the number of signatures required, require ballot question committees to obtain signatures from a proportional number of voters in at least 44 out of 66 counties. (That wouldn’t stop paid circulators, but it would definitely cut into their business model to require them to drive all over kingdom come and take a risk with their hardball out-of-state sales tactics in Lemmon, Kadoka, and Gettysburg.)
- Create a secure online petitioning system. Allow us to conduct grassroots ballot measure campaigns via e-mail and social media, give people the opportunity to sign petitions from their homes and smartphones, the paid circulator business model crashes, and all concerns about petition legitimacy are centralized into one super-secure, immediately verifiable database.
- Forget enacting any new laws; just deputize the entire Secretary of State’s office and every county auditor and send them out along with DCI agents during petition season to question every petitioner they see on the street and enforce existing laws.
I welcome your evaluation of these suggestions and your own proposals.
But whatever you think should be done with our election and petition laws, remember: maintaining the integrity of our democratic petition process doesn’t require big government. It requires good government, with all of us doing our duty to ensure respect for South Dakota’s laws and voters.