One of the central arguments to my lawsuit against the state’s unconstitutional circulator registry and badging (SD Voice v. Noem II, heard last Monday by U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann here in Aberdeen) is that the new law, scheduled to take effect next July, subjects South Dakotans who carry collect signatures for initiatives and referenda to harassment by opponents of their ballot questions. To testify to the reality of this harassment, we brought Miller Cannizzaro to the stand to talk about the harassment he faced while carrying petitions in Rapid City in 2015.
Cannizzaro helped circulate what became Initiated Measure 22, the 36% rate cap on payday lenders. Cannizzaro was a valuable circulator: working the sidewalks in downtown Rapid City, Cannizzaro said he was able to get a hundred signatures a day. That success made Cannizzaro a target for the professional political operatives brought into the state by the payday lending industry to stop the rate cap. Cannizzaro testified that employees of Encore Political Services began following him around Rapid City on September 8, 2015. As many as five “blockers” (that’s the professional term used in the petition business) would surround Cannizzaro and disrupt his efforts to speak with voters on the streets. They would shout over him, reach around him to place their own petition clipboards over his, and physically obstruct voters from approaching him.
Cannizzaro is not a big guy: he told Judge Kornmann that he’s 5’4″ and at the time weighed 125 pounds. (He’s bulked up a little since then working as an EMT in Wall.) Cannizzaro said the blockers were all bigger than him in at least one dimension, including one short guy who was “built like an ox” and another dude who was 6’6″. Cannizzaro said he felt “like a deer in a pack of wolves.” When Cannizzaro would sensibly leave the scene and try to find a different place to circulate, the blockers would track him down and surround him again within a few minutes. This constant harassment dropped Cannizzaro’s productivity from 100 signatures a day to no more than ten.
Cannizzaro said the blockers openly bragged about their work to him. They said they got paid a bonus for blocking him. They showed him the photos of him that were distributed among the blocking crew to help identify him on the street. Their job was to find and block Cannizzaro anytime he went out in public. Cannizzaro testified that the blockers showed up even when he went to the grocery store.
The harassment included lies about Cannizzaro’s work: the blockers would shout at potential signers that Cannizzaro worked for big banks (recall that the 36% rate cap was sponsored by a pastor and a coffee-shop owner and had a campaign budget far smaller than the millions of dollars payday lenders spent trying to disrupt the campaign). Cannizzaro also said the blockers would misrepresent their own petition (the fake 18% rate cap proposed by the payday lenders to confuse the voters and save their predatory industry) and brag about their own signature counts. Beyond the substance of the petitions, the blockers harassed Cannizzaro with homophobic comments, calling him a “faggot” and other slurs.
The blockers usually wore the purple t-shirts of another initiative campaign, the Marsy’s Law petition drive led by South Dakota Republican operative Jason Glodt. Cannizzaro said the blockers worked for both campaigns, and their purple shirts made them easy to spot. Cannizzaro said he became “terrified” of purple at the time and was on edge any time he spotted the distinctive purple shirts on the street. Cannizzaro also found a photo online of one of the blockers pointing firearms at the camera.
Cannizzaro felt so threatened that he purchased and carried a firearm during the remainder of the 2015 petition drive. He said he no longer owns that weapon. He sold it when he moved: “I didn’t think I would need it in Detroit.”
Last Monday was not the first time Cannizzaro testified under oath to the harassment perpetrated against him by opponents of the payday-lending petition he carried. Cannizzaro went to court in 2015 to obtain a protection order against one Hiram Asmuth, the manager of the Encore Political Services blockers. Cannizzaro asked that Asmuth be kept away from him until the end of the petition drive in early November; the judge issued a protection order for five years, an order still in effect today.
The laws under scrutiny in this case would require petition circulators to register with the state prior to collecting signatures. Circulators would have to give, among other information, their name, home address, phone number, e-mail address, and occupation to the Secretary of State, who would make that data available in a public database. Circulators would have to wear a state issued badge with an identification number tied to that database and the name of the ballot question committee whose petition they are carrying.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Leach asked Cannizzaro if that circulator registry and badging requirement would affect his willingness to circulate petitions. “Greatly,” replied Cannizzaro. He said he wouldn’t want the blockers to know where he lives. He said he wouldn’t touch a controversial issue.
The lawyer dispatched from Pierre to defend the state’s law, Assistant Attorney General Holly Farris, didn’t challenge the facts Cannizzaro presented. She noted that no badges were required in 2015 and asked Cannizzaro how the opponents identified him; he said they saw him with petitions on the street. She asked if he had reported the blocker with the guns to law enforcement; Cannizzaro said he simply saw the photo on Facebook. She asked how Cannizzaro knew that the opponents had distributed his photograph among the blockers; Cannizzaro said they had bragged and shown him the photos.
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Cannizzaro’s testimony shows that our concern about petition opponents harassing circulators is real. It shows that requiring circulators to register before they circulate, surrender their information to a public database, and wear an identification badge in public will chill citizens’ willingness to volunteer for a petition drive.
Cannizzaro’s testimony also shows that the Legislature is not interested in addressing the real threat of disorder and disruption in the ballot question process. A well-known Republican operative funneled enormous sums of out-of-state money into the hands of an out-of-state political petition firm that harassed and intimidated one South Dakota petitioner so intensely that he felt the need to carry a gun to protect himself. Yet the Legislature has taken no action to protect South Dakotans from being harassed for engaging in core political speech. Quite the contrary: in passing 2019 House Bill 1094, the circulator registry and badging requirement, the Legislature is imposing new requirements on South Dakota petitioners that will make them easier targets for the big-money operations that want to shout down our voices.
Stay tuned—I’ll summarize the rest of the December 9 trial in upcoming blog posts!