There are more Republicans than Democrats in South Dakota, and even more elected Republicans than elected Democrats, so it’s perfectly statistically predictable that I would talk with more notable Republicans than Democrats at the South Dakota State Fair.
One Republican legislator paused at the SD Voice booth, where I was busy petitioning for the People Power Petition, an initiative that harkens back entirely to my own erstwhile conservatism, repealing unnecessary and ineffective laws that only overregulate the initiative process and depress citizen participation in petition drives.
“We aren’t depressing anything,” said this Republican legislator, in straight-faced defense of increased government regulation.
Thinking this Republican legislator may not understand the nature of grassroots democracy and the practical impact of the laws he and his party have passed (see 2018 HB 1177 and 2018 HB 1196), I tried educating him:
Suppose, I said, you decided you wanted to help circulate my petition. (I rolled my eyes heavenward to acknowledge the utter fancy of the suggestion.) You say, “Hey, I don’t have a lot of time to circulate, but I could take a petition or two back to camp, get my family and my RV neighbors to sign, and bring you back 10–15 signatures before the Fair closes.” For most of the 120+ years that the initiative process has existed in South Dakota and even as recently as two years ago, I could respond to such fresh volunteerism with a hearty, “No problem! Here’s a petition, here are some A.G. explanations, follow the instructions, then bring it back to my notary, and she’ll square you away. Thanks!” Boom—easy peasy! That’s how grassroots campaigns should work: helping lots of citizens each do a little bit to support democracy.
But under the new laws you’ve passed, I said, I have to tell you, “Hey, great! But first, I need you to give me your name, e-mail address, and phone number. I need to send that to Pierre. When the Secretary of State gets to the office on Tuesday, he’ll approve you to circulate. Then you have to write your info down on each one of these handouts, give one to each signer, then fill out this affidavit, tell me the last three places you’ve lived, attach your hunting license or library card or some other document with your current address, and send all of that to me. Thanks!”
Even if you’re still willing to participate in the petition drive after all that rigamarole, you still can’t do what you offered to do, which is collect a few signatures from your camping buddies here at the Fair, because the Secretary of State won’t approve anyone until after the Fair is done. To be unable to recruit on-the-spot circulators at the highest-traffic event in the state on Labor Day weekend totally depresses volunteer participation.
“Well, you just need to plan ahead,” said the Republican legislator.
Plan ahead? Hmm… I wonder how this Republican legislator would feel if we told him that, in order to recruit fairgoers to volunteer to advertise “Trump 2020” and “Team Rounds” around the fairgrounds, his party had to “plan ahead” and require all potential cap- and backpack-wearers to sign up before they got to the fair?
Grassroots democracy depends on volunteers, and a lot of volunteers don’t plan ahead. Even if a grassroots campaign had the money to advertise prodigiously on every channel, it would still get a lot of its volunteers from unplanned face-to-face meetings at events, where we meet and educate people who had no idea the petition drive was happening, who learn the merits of what it’s about, and decide on the spot that they’d like to be a small part of the effort to help their community. To depress that kind of participation, the ability to move a citizen from zero to civics in two minutes, is truly depressing.
But such, it seems, is this Republican legislator’s view of the electorate. He and his party discourage citizens from civic engagement. We petitioners invite such engagement.
A democracy views the people with respect; a republic views the people as suspect.