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Ahlers Proposes Independent Redistricting Commission Amendment for 2020 Ballot

Former Dell Rapids legislator Dan Ahlers wants to do some more legislating… by the people! He’d like us to vote on amending the state constitution to change how we draw our Legislative districts!

According to the suggested revisions sent by the Legislative Research Council on June 21, the Ahlers amendment would scrap Article 3 Section 5, which gives the Legislature its complete authority to draw its own districts to suit its its partisan members’ political interests. Instead, the Ahlers amendment would establish a five-member independent redistricting commission mandated to draw districts after every Census on a “grid-like pattern” adjusted solely on the following criteria:

  1. Requirements of the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution, and federal law;
  2. Geographical compactness and contiguity;
  3. Socioeconomic similarity (a nod toward Dr. Erin Fouberg’s proposal to draw districts around areas of shopping habits?)
  4. Visible geographic features, municipal and county boundaries, and Census tracts.

LRC recommends reordering those criteria and giving socioeconomic area the lowest priority.

Like 2016’s failed Amendment T, the Ahlers amendment forbids redistricters from considering party registration, voting history, or the place of residence of any Legislative incumbent or candidate in drawing district boundaries.

The Ahlers amendment further resembles T in requiring that redistricters not hold any public or party office for three years before or after serving on the commission and that they not be recent party switchers. Like Amendment T, the Ahlers amendment prohibits a majority of commission members belonging to the same party. Amendment T called for nine members of the commission, while Ahlers calls for only five, so that limits any one party to seats on the Ahlers version of the redistricting commission.

Ahlers diverges significantly from Amendment T in giving the power to appoint redistricters not to the Board of Elections (which point Republicans used to speciously argue that the T board would end up rigged for one party) but to party leaders in the House and Senate and to the Secretary of State. That still likely leaves three members picked by Republicans, two by Democrats, and none by independents or alternative parties, but it’s better than the current scheme in which districts are drawn by the people who stand to benefit directly from rigged district boundaries.

Ahlers and other ballot question sponsors are under a tight schedule. With the LRC’s send date of June 21, if Dan hustled and sent a revision to Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for review right away, our partisan A.G. could sit on the measure for sixty days (and his boss Dan Lederman will surely tell him to do so), meaning Ahlers might not hit the streets with this petition until August 20, just barely in time to take that petition to the State Fair and start collecting the 33,921 signatures necessary to put a constitutional amendment on the 2020 South Dakota ballot.


  1. TAG 2019-06-27

    I doubt this will ever be approved in SD. There is a growing trend in states towards independent non-partisan redistricting right now. In fact, currently there are 16 states with some kind of independent solution to gerrymandering, including our neighbors Montana and Iowa:

    Of course, this means we will be the 48th or 49th state to do it, if ever.

    SCOTUS has punted several times recently on partisan gerrymandering, so it’s up to the states to fix it, apparently.

    Republicans would rather not have a level playing field, though.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-27

    TAG, I know we have the failure of T in 2016 as empirical evidence that South Dakota voters are hesitant to change the redistricting process, but what makes us less likely to pass this useful reform than other states?

  3. Michael L. Wyland 2019-06-27

    One practical issue I’d like to see addressed is that the requirement that redistricting commissioners not run for political office for three years *after* serving as a commissioner.

    I understand the logic behind the restriction on a commissioner’s future actions, but would that restriction pass Constitutional muster if there were a legal challenge?

  4. Debbo 2019-06-27

    This is the right thing to do for a functional democracy. Naturally the GOP opposes it.

  5. Debbo 2019-06-27

    Mike, this is in regard to the wingnut frenzy over the SCOTUS decision on the census and it’s very funny. No paywall.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-28

    Michael, good question. I contend the backward restriction would apply to everyone easily. The forward restriction—no running/serving in office for three years after term on IRC ends—would apply constitutionally to anyone running for state or local office but could not apply to people running for Congress or President, since states can’t put additional requirements on qualifications for federal office. Saying “must not have served on redistricting commission” counts as an additional requirement for federal office, which the courts would strike down. (Dan, fix that!)

    The verb tense is awkward: “A member of the commission must not have been a candidate for or elected to any public office or have been an official in any political party during the three years immediately preceding or during the three years immediately following the member’s term on the commission.” We can’t say, “You must not have been at the party tomorrow.” Ahlers should split that requirement: “Members of the commission must not have been candidates for or held public or party office during the three years immediately preceding their term on the commission. Members may not be candidates for or serve in public or party office for three years after the end of their term on the commission.”

  7. TAG 2019-06-28

    Cory said: “…what makes us less likely to pass this useful reform than other states?”

    Just a gut feeling, rooted in a distrust of voters to support things in their own self-interest, when they are bombarded with rhetoric, propaganda and fake news from the pro-gerrymandering Republican establishment, that appeals to partisan hatred and fear of the “other”.

    Being that this is a proposed constitutional amendment, at least our anti-populist legislature cannot dismiss the vote out-of-hand, like they did with so many other initiatives that passed a popular vote.

    Who knows? Maybe I am not giving our voters enough credit in seeing gerrymandering for what it is. We have an increasingly large block of voters registered as “Independent”. Let’s see if they truly are.

  8. TAG 2019-06-28

    I’ll use this thread to again promote something that I think would essentially neutralize any attempts of gerrymandering in the redistricting process: Proportional Representation(PR) with Multi-Member Districts(MMD). This carries the acronym: MMD-PR.

    There are several ways to accomplish proportional representation, but any of them would be better than what we have now. Unlike many states, SD still has two-member districts for the house. This is an opportunity for more proportional voting methods, if we want to take it.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-06-29

    TAG, I look at the history of initiative and referendum and see South Dakota voters doing a better job of voting in their interest than when they are presented with candidate ballots with partisan labels.

    Don’t we have proportional representation with districts drawn to have equal population? Aren’t two reps and one senator for each 24K population roughly proportional?

  10. TAG 2019-07-01


    No, that’s not what proportional representation means. In a “First-past-the-post” voting system like we have, the majority groups are represented dis-proportionally in government. This is true weather you are referring to political party, race, sex, religion, views on abortion, etc. Compare the party registration with the makeup of the legislature in SD and you see what I mean.

    Voting systems that utilize “Proportional Representation” attempt to give representation to minority groups (to varying levels of detail). To accomplish this, multi-member districts are very helpful. So is Ranked-Choice Voting.

    Look at our current 2-member house districts: Because you get two votes for two representatives, the result in proportion of R/D is very similar to the senate. A district with 55% Republicans will likely have a Republican Senator, and two Republican Representatives in most years (this is assuming most people don’t vote split tickets, which isn’t that far from the truth these days). So the 45% of the hypothetical district that isn’t Republican don’t have much of a voice, even though they are almost half of the populace, and there are two Reps in the district.

    A more proportional system would have a much better chance of producing one R and one D from that district in most years. Like I said, there are multiple methods to accomplish proportional representation One very simple way would be to keep all the districting the same, but just change the voting to a form of RCV that works with MMDs, like “Single Transferable Vote”.

    Gerrymandering can be really hard to fix. SCOTUS couldn’t do it. Every new standard of what is or isn’t a gerrymander will eventually be “gamed” with new technology. This is similar to the never-ending escalation in sophistication and technology between criminals and law-enforcement. Like the “war on drugs”.

    PR essentially neutralizes the effects of trying to gerrymander. Much better solution, IMO.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-07-01

    Oh! Sorry, I was thinking population, not a Canadian-style parliamentary system. I see where you’re coming from.

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