Create Statewide Wiki-Committee to Review and Amend Initiatives Before Election?

Our discussion of Amendment V’s implications for plurality thresholds and ties prompted one shy reader to comment by e-mail that a fundamental weakness of the initiative process is the absence of a committee process that allows voters to review initiated measures, spot gaps and errors, and refine out those problems. In the status quo, once initiative sponsors start circulating their petitions (over a year before the election), they are locked into their initiative language. If anyone discovers a problem or suggests better language, the voters’ only recourse is to either vote the initiative down, sending the sponsors back to repeat the same two-year drafting, petitioning, and campaigning process, or, if it’s an initiated law rather than a constitutional amendment, vote Yes and gamble on the Legislature’s ability to fix the initiative’s flaws during the following Session.

I agree that the lack of a committee/bicameral/amendment process is a disadvantage of initiative. Perhaps we could try a wiki initiative:

  1. Keep the current petition process to place an initiated measure on the ballot, requiring initiative sponsors to submit all petitions by one year before the next general election.
  2. Require the Secretary of State to validate all petitions by January 1 the year of the general election (basically eight weeks after the petition submission deadline).
  3. Once the Secretary of State validates the initiative petition, post the initiative on a wiki, accessible to all South Dakota voters.
  4. Allow all South Dakota voters to discuss and amend the initiated measure on the wiki.
  5. All wiki participants must settle (by majority vote, just like committee) on a final form of the wiki initiative by June 1.
  6. The original sponsors of the initiative must decide by July 1 (or 90 days after end of Session, same deadline as referrals) which version goes to the ballot: the amended wiki version or the original circulated version. (Given this awesome decision-making power, I might consider requiring that ballot question committees consist of at least nine sponsors, or maybe a larger odd number.)

Imperfections abound in this wiki-amendment proposal, but it would provide the opportunity for review that helps iron out imperfections in normal legislation. I welcome your thoughts about eligibility, security, and voting procedures that could add this level of volunteer citizen review to our initiative process.

5 Responses to Create Statewide Wiki-Committee to Review and Amend Initiatives Before Election?

  1. Donald Pay

    Nothing prevents a wide consideration of initiative language prior to circulation under the current system. Any law, whether enacted through initiative or by the legislative process, is likely to have some unforeseen drafting issue or circumstance change that necessitates amendment.

    A far bigger problem are the ridiculous deadlines enacted during the 2000s. Those actually prevent first using the legislative route to get feedback.

  2. That’s a fair point, Don. We may be able to get just as much additional review and input by giving the sponsors an extra eight months to circulate their petitions. Sponsors should be as interested as everyone else in producing an optimal bill; postponing the submission deadline allows them more time to gather information, as well as to craft the proposal to deal with new circumstances (like changes the Legislature may make!).

  3. Donald Pay

    I don’t know how it is now, but when we were doing initiatives in the 19980s and 1990s there was the thought among most of our folks was hat you didn’t want “the other side” to know what is was you were planning to put on the ballot. What that boiled down to: you talked only to those folks who agreed with you. It sort of blinded you to the valid and invalid arguments your potential opponents might make against your initiative. I tried to be a sort of devil’s advocate for, for instance, what the mining industry might think, and so I pissed off some of our own troops from time to time. I did talk to people at DENR to get their thoughts without disclosing too much information.

    My own feeling is that it is far better to craft a potential initiative and get a friendly legislator to submit it as a bill. Then it gets at least one hearing, where you can hear supporters and opponents make arguments, suggest changes, etc. Who knows, you might get the legislature to pass some sort of bill that satisfies your concerns. We pulled our bill one time when Governor Mickelson proposed a pretty strong bill on the same issues. We ended up supporting his bill. That was probably a mistake on our part, because too much of what we favored in that bill was amended out, and we ended up going ahead with our initiative without benefit of the knowledge that hearings we would have gotten had we just introduced the bill.

    I’m a firm believer in participating in the system even when you know you will lose. You at least know where people are coming from that way, and it might make you change your initiative’s language. The problem is the deadlines enacted in the 2000s no longer make that a viable option. Those deadlines need to be put back to what they were before.

  4. mike from iowa

    Why a Wiki if any Joe Blow can change it for whatever reason they want?

  5. Mike, I agree that wikis open the door for wild changes… but they also open the door for other people to check those wild changes. The concept works pretty well on Wikipedia.

    Donald, from a practical perspective, I like the idea of floating an initiative as a bill first. I’d be happy to see a simpler solution: make the initiative deadline the same as the referendum deadline: 90 days after the end of Session. Then we could write an initiative, hand it to a friendly legislator, see how far it gets, take notes from committee testimony… and then, if the Legislature rejects it, circulate petitions and put it on that year’s ballot.