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Higher Voter Turnout Means Ballot Measure Petitions Need 22% More Signatures in 2019

The surge in numerical voter turnout that appears to have been driven by the excitement generated by Billie Sutton’s failed campaign has one downside (for which I ding Billie not one bit; I only point out statistical and legal fact as practical advice): putting initiatives and referenda on the ballot will be harder in 2019.

339,154 South Dakotans voted in this gubernatorial election. SDCL 2-1-5 says that the total gubernatorial vote shall be the basis for determining the number of people who must sign a petition to put an initiative or referendum on the ballot. SDCL 2-1-1 and SDCL 2-1-3 require that petitions for initiated laws and referred laws (respectively) receive signatures equal to at least five percent of that most recent gubernatorial vote. Article 23 Section 1 of the South Dakota Constitution requires that petitions for initiated amendments receive signatures equal to at least ten percent of that most recent gubernatorial vote.

5% of 339,154 is 16,958*.

10% of 339,154 is 33,916*. (We round up, because four tenths of a signature does not count. And these numbers may change slightly with the official canvass.)

*Update 2018.12.13 20:48 CST: Secretary of State Shantel Krebs has issued this official guide to circulating 2020 ballot measure petitions. Based on official vote canvass numbers, the new guide says we must collect 16,961 signatures to put laws on the ballot and 33,921 to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Putting something like my proposed comprehensive ballot measure reform on the 2020 ballot will thus require at least 16,958 South Dakota voters to sign my petition. Ditto if we want to follow our fellow conservatives in Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho in voting to expand Medicaid.

Putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow for, say, recall of statewide officials for corruption or incompetence (I’m looking at you, Attorney General-Elect Jason Ravnsborg) will require 33,916 South Dakotans to affix their name to a petition.

The failure of Democrats to mount a competitive gubernatorial campaign in 2014 led to lower turnout and, thus, lower signature counts for ballot measure petitions in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Sutton’s surge means initiated and referred laws will need 3,087 more petition signatures; amendment petitions will need 6,175 more signatures.

Practically speaking, that 22.3% increase means that if you’re running a petition drive, for every five 20-signature sheets you filled out last year, you’ll have to fill a sixth and grab three spare signatures next year. If your petition circulators average 20 signatures per hour (and that’s optimistic), it’s going to take you 155 more circulator-hours (one circulator working full-time for four weeks) to finish an IM/referral petition drive and 309 more circulator-hours to get enough signatures to put an amendment to a vote.

If you’ve got volunteers, that’s great! But if you’re paying circulators $15 an hour, and if you’re doing a professional job and collecting at least a 30% cushion (the average petition error rate in 2017 was 25.73%), you’ll spend over $3,000 more on salaries for an IM/referral drive and over $6,000 more on an amendment drive.

Don’t blame Billie—that’s just the price of higher participation in democracy.


  1. Donald Pay 2018-11-10 15:44

    I think it’s hilarious and just that Republican voter suppression efforts end up causing lower signature requirements for ballot questions.

  2. Debbo 2018-11-10 21:33

    Hmmmm. Wouldn’t it be interesting if initiated laws were crafted and passed by voters to do what the SDGOP will not– clean up their corruption?

    Of course, that was the purpose of W. Never fear. By 2020 the SDGOP will have had another dirty scandal resulting in more deaths. Then voters will see that there really is a need for something like W with Real Oversight and Real Teeth. The SDGOP wont stop till someone/group/citizens stop them.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-11-12 12:25

    There is an interesting corrective feature there, Donald. If voters don’t turn out, elected officials may be less responsive, thus requiring more I&R to do what the Legislature fails to do. If more voters turn out, elected officials should be more responsive, and we should not need to use I&R as often.

    Ideally speaking, of course.

    Debbo, I suppose somewhere in your comment lies one glimmer of hope: things will be so bad under McCaulley/Noem/Ravnsborg that the people will be forced to take action.

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