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Higher Vote Requirement Would Cut Approved Amendments by 2/3

…But We South Dakotans Like Changing Our Constitution!

Senator Jim Bolin wants to make it harder to amend the South Dakota Constitution. Last Session, Senator Bolin proposed Senate Joint Resolution 2, an amendment to raise the threshold for the Legislature to call a public vote on an amendment from simple majority to two-thirds of each chamber and to raise the general election vote threshold from simple majority to 60%. That proposal fell short of a two-thirds vote in the Senate and died in House State Affairs.

Now on the interim task force on initiative and referendum, Senator Bolin has offered two simpler proposals, leaving the threshold for placing measures on the ballot alone but proposing either a 55% or 60% threshold for approving amendments in the general election.

During the debate on Bolin’s SJR 2, I noted that his 60% requirement would have reduced the number of amendments passed by voters since 2000 from fourteen to five.

At the task force’s request, the Legislative Research Council extends that analysis with this handy chart of how we’ve voted on every constitutional amendment since 1970 and how Senator Bolin’s higher vote thresholds would have affected passage. Unfortunately, LRC appears to flip some columns and count five failed amendments (2008 G H & J, 2004 A & B) as passed. LRC also leaves out the June 2002 vote on Amendment A on corporate farming.

Revising the LRC table, I find that since 1970, voters have approved 45 of 97 proposed constitutional amendments. Raise the threshold to 55%, and only 31 measures would have passed. Raise it to 60%, and only 14 would have passed.

For the parliamentarians among us, if we considered the traditional parliamentary rule-changing threshold of two-thirds, only eight amendments out of the 97 over the last 46 years would have passed.

Senator Bolin’s fundamental motivation here is sound: amending a constitution should be harder than changing laws. But as I noted in our discussion of SJR 2 last winter, we already make amending the constitution harder than changing our laws. Laws can pass by Legislative vote or by citizen initiative. The Legislature cannot pass amendments by itself; any amendments the Legislature seeks must also win the approval of the voters. Citizens can pass amendments without the Legislature, but placing an initiated amendment on the ballot requires twice as many petition signatures as an initiated law.

I was going to add that citizens are probably more wary of changing their constitution than they are of changing their laws. However, since 1970, we have passed 46% of the amendments that have come our way and only 37% of the laws placed on the ballot by initiative or referendum. Since 1890, that difference is even greater: we’ve passed 49% of proposed amendments but only 29% of proposed laws.

We’re also more likely to pass amendments proposed by the Legislature than those initiated by our fellow citizens. Of 222 amendments placed on the ballot by the Legislature, we’ve approved 112—that’s one more than 50%! Of the 16 we have initiated, we have approved 6—that’s 38%, about the same as the rate at which we’ve approved initiated laws (10 out of 26).

Those numbers suggest that we the people hold our state constitution less sacrosanct than our statutes. Or maybe South Dakotans are just pragmatists who won’t let abstractions from political philosophers like Senator Bolin and me stand in the way of fixing problems.


  1. Porter Lansing 2017-07-25 10:17

    Making it harder for the people to amend their constitution is saying that everything is perfect the way it is and to just leave everything alone. Some “slow to change” fundamentalists may see this as proper. The voters didn’t.
    If the constitution was completely wiped clean and an all new modern constitution was written then maybe a higher threshold for change might be appropriate … but only for maybe ten years at a time.
    Change Is Hard … Nothing worth doing is ever easy.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-07-25 10:30

    Good point, Porter. Contending that we need to make it harder to amend our constitution assumes that our constitution doesn’t need changing, or at least not as much changing. 45 changes since 1970, 122 changes since 1890—we’re averaging about a change a year. Is that so bad? Has that rate of change in our constitution caused any harmful instability in our system of governance?

  3. Donald Pay 2017-07-25 22:09

    Wisconsin’s amendment process requires that proposed amendments pass in two succeeding biennial sessions of the Legislature. That means it takes as many as four years to pass an amendment. Dumb. South Dakota’s process is much better, and it isn’t broke.

    Sometimes people like Bolin propose this kind of stuff to prove to themselves how smart they think they are. They try to solve a non-existent problem in order to have an excuse for not dealing with the real problems of the state.

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