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Register Petition Circulators? Ban Paid Signature Gatherers? Or Just Enforce Existing Laws?

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.

Just last year, Powers and his GOP pal former Republican Senator Dan Lederman were calling for bigger government in the form of a ban on paid circulators:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Require all petition circulators to wear badges identifying themselves, their employers, and their contact information.
  3. Restrict petition circulation for statewide ballot issues and candidates to South Dakota registered voters who voted in the last statewide general election.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


  1. mike from iowa 2015-09-21 10:38

    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.

    koch bros,koch bros,koch bros,koch bros,etc,etc,etc,etc………..

  2. Shirley Harrington-Moore 2015-09-21 10:55

    When I was circulating 69 and 177 earlier this summer I was asked if I were being paid. My answer was consistently ‘NO’. How can I PROVE I am just a good citizen?

  3. Doug Lund 2015-09-21 12:35

    As you were doing your Sunday morning parking lot investigation involving the suspicious old “tattooed” man on crutches and his boss in the “blue” Subaru were you able to conclude that, other than perhaps “trespassing”,
    their petitions were for anything other than Marcy’s Law? The “boss” did give you a sheet of paper before he sped away. What was on it?

  4. PlanningStudent 2015-09-21 14:04

    I would like it if circulators were required to print their name on the petition sheet, with a date, then sign as they do now at the end with a date, in front of a notary. That way when I’m approached by someone with a petition i can look at the back and ask if they are the person whos name is on the sheet. This would prevent when multiple circulators gather signatures on the same sheet. I see this often in Sioux Falls at home shows and bensons flea market…

  5. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-21 14:42

    I like all of the options and #1 is my favorite. Of course the tax revenues should entirely replace funding for any Koch trips like ALEC, and that money goes to teacher salaries.

  6. PlanningStudent 2015-09-21 15:06

    Also I did research on banning paid circulators for some legislation and decided with help from the AG’s office that based on some out-of-state cases we couldn’t prohibit compensation of circulators. We could prohibit compensation based on the number of signatures gathered… There was even a loophole for that though, that people could still receive a bonus when certain signature totals were reached.

  7. Donald Pay 2015-09-21 15:33

    There are several problems to be solved. Over the last 15 years the Republicans have over-bureaucratized the initiative and referendum process, all in an attempt to shut down ballot measures. What has happened is what I had said would happen: your everyday citizen has been squeezed out, and a bunch of professional bullshitters hired by special interests have taken over. So, the first thing to do is get rid of most of the changes to the process in the last 15 years.

    Second, you do have to deal with paid circulation, but it has to be done within the law as given to us by the cuckoo US Supreme Court. Paid circulation is part of the elite’s “free speech rights,” according to the Supremes, who also think drek like Sheldon and the Kochs ought to pick our leaders. If you want real change, you better vote Democratic so we can change the idiots on the Supreme Court, who will, one can hope, start making the rights of the monied elites more in line with us everyday schmucks.

    Now, as to what needs to be done in the meantime. The rights needing protection are the people who are asked to sign petitions. They are the ones who are petitioning for redress of grievances. In the way the laws are written, the circulator is the primary line of defense against fraud and the primary means through which the signer can exercise his right to redress of grievances. It’s a sacred trust. The circulator is there to make sure the petition is filled out legally. That is why the circulator must be proximal to the signer and why he or she must sign the oath.

    To me, adding paid circulation to this trust is like moneychangers at the Temple, but that’s the law our idiot Supreme Court has given us. The Legislature makes paid lobbyists wear badges identifying who they are and who they represent. It’s constitutional. I have no problem making circulators wear badges, but I’d have a white badge for volunteer circulators and a black badge for the paid circulators. The real problem is the bullshitters and the elite political class who are sponsors of ballot measures, and the special interests who are backing them. Anyone using paid circulation needs extra scrutiny, because money takes away from the public trust aspects of circulating.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-21 15:46

    Doug, the only petition and political materials visible were for Marsy’s Law.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-21 15:48

    Proof can be tricky, Shirley. People have to decide whether they trust your answer. The surest way to build trust in a petition interaction is to be as transparent as possible… and offer your name and your ballot question committee’s contact information.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-21 15:50

    And Planning, I take it that’s why our “no pay by signature” statute is crafted the way it is.

    Name at the top of the petition might not hurt… although that “notarize before, then notarize after” requirement again complicates recruiting volunteers.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-21 15:53

    Donald’s right: we can’t ban the paid circulators by law, but we must give them more scrutiny, as they do pose a risk to the integrity of the process.

    Maybe that’s why I might lean increasingly toward the online petition idea. We wouldn’t have to ban the paid circulators; we just need a way for organizers to line up lots of signatures through an online campaign without having to rely on that imported labor. Bust the business model, collect signatures more efficiently and reliably with technology.

    So I wonder who could gather more signatures in an eight-hour work day: the most aggressive professional circulator with his manipulative salesman tactics, or an organizer on e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook who can direct his networks toward an online petition that anyone can access from any Web-enabled device?

  12. mike from iowa 2015-09-21 16:20

    Wingnuts love state issued photo ids,for voters why not for circulators?

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-21 17:06

    Good point Mike. I’ll go with Don’s white badges for the good guys (unpaid locals) and black badges for the bad guys (out of staters probably fronting big $).

  14. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-21 17:14

    I’d like more information on every petition page too. I want all the contact information for the individual or group promoting the petition in big, easily readable print. That would also be on the petitioners badge, plus a photo of that individual. Add contact information describing how to report questionable petitioner tactics and behavior. Everyone who is shown the petition should receive a card with all that info on it, plus the particular referred law or initiative presented.

    The petitioning group ought to pay for the information cards, but not the badges because that could become a way to make it more difficult for citizens to participate in the initiative or referendum processrs. The cards would be cheaper and could be downloaded for petitioners around the state to print on Avery business card blanks. The photo IDs would be more expensive.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-21 23:15

    Each of the ideas I’ve heard has merits. But each of the additional requirements also has the danger of deterring participation. This isn’t an easy issue.

    I’d like to suggest a paradigm from which to view the problem. Can we consider a petition, carrying a voter’s signature and thus the expression of that voter’s will, to be as “sacred” as a ballot? If so, think of all the actions we take to secure ballots. How might we require circulators and public officials to similarly secure petitions?

    If we treat petitions like ballots, we almost have to put county auditors in charge of them. Imagine if every year we held “Petition Day.” 90 days after the close of each Legislative session, the county auditors would set up petitioning stations, just as they set up polling places for elections. On Petition Day, people who want to sign petitions would check in with election officials, who would verify that the desirous signers are registered voters. Folks who aren’t registered could register on the spot and proceed to sign petitions. We could require each signer to go to a separate table to sign each petition in full (name, address, the works), but with election officials certifying the registration status of everyone entering the petitioning station, we could just hand each qualified signer a paper resembling a ballot with a list of all measures seeking a place on the general election ballot. Signers would simply mark a bubble for each measure they’d like to see put to a vote. We can also allow early absentee signing at the courthouse, by mail, and by designated messenger. At the end of Petition Day, those measures that draw enough signers go to the ballot.

    Would Petition Day, conducted by county election officials everywhere in South Dakota, eliminate fraud and error on petitions?

  16. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-22 14:47

    I understand what you’re trying to do Cory, and I think turnout would be very poor with fewer petition carriers resulting. It does provide more possibilities to build on.

    How about if a Petition Week, including a Saturday, was held for carriers to come to the county courthouse to be certified, photographed, and receive their black or white badge? The state would cover all costs from the governor’s slush fund. (Whatever it’s called.) Any additional carriers would be covered under a certified carrier by receiving that carriers code to put on the sheets. (Or something like that.)

    The idea is that specific individuals are held accountable for what they do.

    Another possibility is that only the certified carrier can turn in petitions and is held responsible for each petition, regardless of which uncertified person procured signatures.

    Feel free to build on that.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-22 18:34

    I agree that turnout could be a big problem. People don’t run out en masse to sign petitions; we have to go find them and ask them to do it on the spot. Hmm… is that another indictment of the grassrootsiness of ballot measures?

    I’m just wondering if there is some way to involve public officials to certify and protect the process as it happens. Could a Petition Week be a fair test of organizers’s ability to mobilize people to go the courthouse and sign?

  18. jerry 2015-09-22 19:04

    In Rapid City, two young dudes claim they are getting college credits for the 18% petitions. They claim they are volunteers and are not getting paid. The crooks are teaching their crooks well on how to duck the questions.

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-22 22:02

    College credit? From what institution?

    And fun link, Jerry!

  20. PlanningStudent 2015-09-23 12:21

    I don’t want to require the first name to be notarized, just printed. Then notarized when its signed at the end as it is now… When i start circulating i print my name and when I’m done i sign with notary.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-23 22:21

    O.K., I can go for that. Signers should be able to see the name of the person handing them the petition both on the sheet itself and on a name tag. That simple measure could build a lot of trust.

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