Noel Hamiel really outdoes himself in his latest guest column in the Rapid City Journal. The former legislator and newspaperman offers not one but two bad arguments as cover for his Republican friends’ efforts to stifle your right to vote on the laws that affect your life.
First, Hamiel revisits a bad old idea from 2009, a bill he proposed to force ballot question petitioners to travel to at least 33 counties to put their measures to a vote.
For decades, I had watched petition circulators collect signatures by the thousands at strategic locations like the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls. And why not? It was an extraordinarily efficient way to garner the required number of signers. However, I thought it disenfranchised rural South Dakotans because it failed to carry the message of the initiated measure to small towns across the state.
If a measure had merit, I reasoned, it wouldn’t have any difficulty collecting names outside Sioux Falls or Rapid City.
Basically, HB1188 required initiated measures to include not less than 5 percent of the signatures of qualified voters in each of at least 33 counties. The bill had some bipartisan support and passed the House 39-27. But it ran into strong headwinds in the Senate, where opponents said it would make the initiated process more difficult [Noel Hamiel, “Petition Law Adds Transparency,” Rapid City Journal, 2019.08.04].
Hamiel holds initiative and referendum campaigns to different standards from anyone else in politics or business. Does a candidate for Governor or Congress not have merit if all of her petition signatures come from high-population, high-traffic locations in Sioux Falls and Rapid City? Does Wal-Mart not have merit because it only puts stores in twelve out of South Dakota’s 66 counties? Is organization to be faulted for operating at peak efficiency by deploying its resources where it can find the most people?
Hamiel’s belief that efficient petition drives disenfranchise smaller-town South Dakotans is false. Circulating a petition in Sioux Falls or Rapid City disenfranchises no one. Every voter in the state gets to vote on a ballot question, whether the voter has signed the ballot question’s petition or not. If Hamiel really believed that folks out in Harding County are “disenfranchised” by usually only getting to sign petitions when they drive down to Rapid City for provisions, he would advocate allowing us to circulate ballot question petitions online, which would make it just as easy to collect signatures from Camp Crook and Running Water as from our big towns.
Geographical quotas for ballot question petition drives are regularly floated by Republican legislators (Bolin in 2016, Gosch in 2017, Haugaard and Novstrup in 2018). Republicans never apply these quotas to candidate petitions, only to initiative and referendum, the form of public political expression that more often than any other in South Dakota tends to break against their partisan interests. Hamiel, like his Republican friends, isn’t interested in fairness or enfranchisement; he’s interested in stifling grassroots South Dakotans’ ability to put laws to a vote of the people.
But Hamiel plows ahead to flack for his Republicans friends’ latest effort to stifle your rights, this year’s House Bill 1094. Hamiel doesn’t mention the heart of the bill, the government registry and badges that the Republican-backed law will impose on circulators after 2020. He just sows the usual Republican fear of outsiders and pretends the onerous, volunteer-hamstringing requirements of this bad law are about “transparency”:
Last session, lawmakers tried to address a different concern: outside influence on initiated measures. HB1094 added some restrictions for petition circulators and ballot measure sponsors. The goal wasn’t to make it harder to get an initiated measure on the ballot, but instead to provide more information about those who were pushing an initiative. Were the petition organizers South Dakotans who simply wanted to change things in their state, or out-of-state activists who had little if any stake here but wanted to impose their ideas on us? [Hamiel, 2019.08.04]
Like HB 1094 sponsor Rep. Jon Hansen, Hamiel appears not to have read the actual lawsuit seeking to overturn HB 1094. In his essay, Hamiel is underscoring one of the fundamental reasons HB 1094 will be overturned in court: it targets disfavored speakers without advancing any compelling state interest. The state already obtains the information about residency that Hamiel says it needs, through the verification of residency every circulator must sign under oath on every sheet she circulates. HB 1094 only adds paperwork, bureaucracy, and delay that fruitlessly infringes on core political speech.
Hamiel acknowledges that the lawsuit has “some merit,” but tries to avoid those merits by citing the same kinds of tangential arguments that Rep. Hansen has offered for ignoring the Constitution and just doing what Republicans want:
The lawsuit may succeed but it’s not a certainty. Most South Dakotans – including me — don’t like out-of-state money influencing outcomes. While IM24 unsuccessfully tried to address that practice, HB1094 only attempts to cast a bright spotlight on the petition process and reveal the players.
As I re-read the law and took a closer look at the actual forms that petition circulators and sponsors would be required to fill out, it was apparent that they set a higher standard than before. But why not? Petitions will still be circulated. Signatures will still be collected. The difference is that voters will know a whole lot more about who’s doing the petitioning, and that would be a good thing [Hamiel, 2019.08.04].
What? Every petition circulator is already a South Dakotan. If any circulators aren’t South Dakotans, they are already subject to prosecution without HB 1094. And if they are South Dakotans, requiring them to register their names, home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information in a government registry and requiring them to wear ID badges in public won’t tell Hamiel or anyone else one thing about the out-of-state money that may be backing the petitions they are circulating. It will only subject circulators to more risk of harassment, chill their participation in the process, needlessly delay and complicate real grassroots campaigns, and, contrary to Hamiel’s stated goals, increase the dominance of big-money players, the only ones who will be able to afford participation in the process Republicans are trying to make more costly and difficult.
Hamiel says he and Republicans have been trying to improve the initiative and referendum process. Hamiel’s bad arguments show the results of their proposals are exactly the opposite.