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HB 1275 Kills Ballot Question Petition Drives with Unworkable Geographical Quotas and Circulator Residency Rule

Let’s kill initiative and referendum altogether! must have been what Rep. Steven Haugaard and Senator Al Novstrup meant when they prime-sponsored House Bill 1275, a measure that makes the circulation of ballot question petitions unworkable.

Borrowing a bad idea floated in the past by anti-democracy Republicans like Senator Jim Bolin and Rep. Spencer Gosch and making it even worse, Haugaard and Novstrup propose geographical quotas for petitions for initiated laws (the ones we citizens come up with for the ballot) and referred laws (the ones legislators come up with that we freeze and put to public vote).

Right now, ballot question petitioners can get their 13,871 signatures—5% of the vote cast in the last gubernatorial election—from anywhere in South Dakota. Circulators have to ask and write down what county each signer is from, but that’s only because voter registration is county-based—you do it at the auditor’s office—and knowing the county helps the Secretary of State check the voter rolls to verify that the signer is a registered voter. A petition with signatures from every county in the state is as valid as a petition that has signatures strictly from Minnehaha County.

HB 1275 would require that petitioners obtain signatures from at least two-thirds of all State Senate districts. HB 1275 creates different standards for initiated laws and referred laws*:

Initiated law petitions would no longer need signatures from 5% of the statewide electorate; instead, Section 1 replaces that statewide threshold with the requirement that initiative circulators gather signatures from at least 5% of the qualified electors in each of at least 24 Senate districts. I’ll need to get the by-district gubernatorial vote tallies from 2014, but theoretically, that could knock the total signatures required down 31%, to around 9,500.

Referred law petitions would still need signatures equaling 5% of the last total vote for governor. However, Section 4 adds the requirement that referendum petitions “contain signatures from each of two-thirds of the senate districts….”

HB 1275 thus requires more signatures to block something the Legislature has done than to propose a new law from scratch, but HB 1275 allows referrers to get most of their signatures from the usual urban centers and settle for a handful of signatures from other far-flung districts that can usually be picked up at fairs and other shows or by a couple quick targeted small-town drives. Depending on 2014 turnout, initiators have to get around 400 signatures in each of 24 districts.

Now Sioux Falls touches nine districts and Rapid City touches five, so initiative circulators could still get much of their quota there. But they’d still have to go get 1,200 in Aberdeen/Brown County (three districts), 400 in Brookings, 400 in Watertown, 400 in Yankton, 400 in Mitchell, 400 in Huron, 400 in Pierre, and 400 in Spearfish.

Those geographical requirements create burdens that will decrease the number of measures that make the ballot. Now come the parts of HB 1275 that make petitioning impossible.

Sections 3, 5, and 7 require that voters write down their Senate district next to their signatures. Forget the district number or get it wrong, and your signature doesn’t count.

Quick check: how many of you know off the top of your head your Senate district number or your State Senator?

O.K., o.k., you’re blog readers, of course you know. You make up 1% of the population. How many South Dakotans on the street know off the top of their heads their district number or Senator?

That one question will throw a majority of signers for a loop and either result in a doubling or tripling of signature invalidation rates (i.e., registered voters seeing their signatures thrown out because they wrote down the wrong number for an arcane datum that usually has no daily geographical relevance to their lives) or a doubling of the time it takes to get signatures as circulators punch every signer’s name into the Vote 605 app tracking down their district number. Greater delay in circulating and higher error rates combined will surely reduce the number of measures that make the ballot.

The killer, though, is the new geographical requirement for circulators. Section 2 requires that a circulator must have lived for at least 90 days in the same district as any person signing her petition:

For purposes of any ballot measure petition, at the time of circulating a petition a petition circulator shall have resided for not less than ninety days in the senate district from which any petition signature is obtained… [HB 1275, Section 2, new language proposed for SDCL 2-1-1.3 definition of “petition circulator”, filed 2018.01.31].

A district residency requirement kills petition drives.

  1. If you’ve just moved to South Dakota, you can’t get involved in a ballot question petition drive anywhere in the state for 90 days.
  2. If you’re a South Dakotan and you just moved to a new town, you can’t circulate a petition around your new town for 90 days.
  3. If you’re a South Dakotan in Aberdeen, Rapid City, or Sioux Falls and you just moved across town into a new district, you can’t petition your new neighbors for 90 days.
  4. If you’ve lived in downtown Sioux Falls all your life, you can petition all your want at the courthouse, but you can only collect signatures from maybe a tenth of the people you meet, the ones who happen to live in your Senate district.
  5. If you’re G. Mark Mickelson and you’re circulating petitions at the Brown County Fair, you can’t send your trusty crew of Sioux Falls circulators up to man the booth; you have to recruit local circulators.
  6. If you live in District 3 in Aberdeen and G. Mark Mickelson hires you to “Collect every signature you can!” at the Brown County Fair, you’re going to need some help. Every time someone from the southwest part of town (District 2) or Frederick (District 1) or Eureka (District 23) or Wolsey (District 22) comes up to the booth, you have to have someone from that district collect that out-of-district signature on a separate sheet of paper… or you just have to turn away probably a majority of your willing signers (which will torque G. Mark off!).
  7. If you’re Melissa Mentele and you’re circulating petitions at the State Fair and you’re determined not to have to turn away any willing signer, you have to have 35 circulators on hand, each with separate petition sheets.

The circulator residency requirement kills petition circulation in exactly the places where petition circulation is most successful: metro-/cosmopolitan areas like downtown Sioux Falls, downtown Rapid City, and big fairs, concerts, and sporting events where lots of people from lots of different places gather. Even in some smaller county seats like Belle Fourche, Miller, Tyndall, and Canton, circulators will encounter voters from a mix of districts, making genuine grassroots petition drives unworkable.

House Bill 1275 is so unworkable that we could assume Rep. Haugaard and Senator Novstrup simply didn’t think through the complications their bill creates. However, given the Republican war on the ability of voters to make their voices heard, it seems more likely they know exactly what they are doing. HB 1275 would make placing initiatives and referenda on the ballot practically impossible. Protect the people’s constitutional right to legislate: Vote NO on HB 1275.

*p.s.: To frost its bad lawmaking, HB 1275 applies no geographical quota to initiated constitutional amendment petitions. It requires that signers include their district number and that circulators reside in the district from which they are collecting signatures, but it doesn’t change the 10% statewide signature threshold. HB 1275 thus confuses the entire ballot question process by creating three completely different geographical quotas—tight for initiated laws, loose for referred laws, and none for initiated amendments.

pp.s.: HB 1275 doesn’t live up to its own geographical quota. Its sponsors come from only one third of all Senate Districts:

  • 3: Novstrup
  • 8: Wiese
  • 9: Clark, Peters, Steinhauer
  • 11: Haugaard, Karr
  • 13:Kolbeck
  • 20: Klumb
  • 22: White
  • 23: Gosch
  • 25: Langer
  • 28: Marty
  • 32: Solano
  • 35: DiSanto


  1. John 2018-02-02 09:17

    You need a PhD to keep all this straight…good God.

  2. Jenny 2018-02-02 09:18

    The GOP Pierre Club must really just hate the voters of SD. Mickelson verified that by calling them knotheads. I guarantee, SD, that the GOP oligarchy in Pierre, will do everything in their power to eventually get rid of the Voter Initiated Referendum. They don’t trust the SD voters and this is what one party rule does. Total Power Corrupts.

  3. Donald Pay 2018-02-02 10:24

    Well, if they want to play the geography game, then it should be required for Legislators as well. The thing is these guys won’t play be the rules they want to make up for citizens. They are proving with every one of these bill just how corrupt they are. Good luck with that pay raise, by the way. You aren’t meeting expectations.

  4. Bob Newland 2018-02-02 10:47

    Mickelson was right to call the voters “knotheads.” They have proved in their choice of about 85% of their legislators.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-02-04 15:04

    Donald, I agree completely that if geographical quotas have any merit in deciding whether a measure goes to the ballot, they should also decide whether a bill goes to committee. Very few bills have enough sponsors to pass the geographical quota Al would make us voters meet with ballot questions.

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