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Harassment by Petition Blockers in 2015 Shows HB 1094 Circulator Registry and Badges Dangerous, Misguided

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.

*     *     *

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!

20 Comments

  1. Porter Lansing 2019-12-16

    At last Tuesday’s “Mensa Meeting” I told my friend Two Page Bill about your day in court and he recounted the same type of story while petitioning a marijuana bill a few years ago in Rapid. He said his “resident”, whom he needed to have with him, said she was threatened by a guy getting restrictive petition gathering laws through the legislature and passed. Bill described him as a red headed guy with a bad temper who would block the process if he was around. *Bill said to give you his and his fellow professionals their approval.

  2. Donald Pay 2019-12-16

    We drew up a bill in 1985 that would make such harassment of circulators or signers of petitions illegal. This was done after Chem-Nuclear hired an ex-fed gumshoe to harass and intimidate circulators and signers, but this was after we had collected and submitted signatures. What happened to Mr. Cannizzaro was far, far worse than any of our folks had to go through.

    I think a circulator registry of sorts can be done in a better way. People should take pride in being a circulator. It’s part of a long South Dakota tradition. Circulators have three roles to fill. They represent the petition sponsor by obtaining signatures on the petition. In the case of a candidate, they represent the candidate who is trying to obtain ballot status. They also represent the petition signer, who seeks to have his or her right to an election on a proposal or a candidate. But, also, they represent the state, who have an interest in having petitions handled in a legal manner.

    If this registry is voluntary, where you take a one-hour course over the internet on how to collect signatures and then get a “badge” to identify you as a Volunteer Petition Circulator, I think most people would respond. Identifying as an unpaid, and trained South Dakota resident is probably a plus as far as people’s view of your trustworthiness. People would eventually gravitate to the people with the badge on. Our 1985 bill should also be enacted, so that anyone who is harassed or intimidated can sign a complaint to get that harassment dealt with by law enforcement.

  3. John 2019-12-16

    I want to know who’s trying to pass laws in my state —legislators have to tell us who they are when they run to then pass laws — petition circulator should be the same way tell us who you are what are you afraid of

  4. Porter Lansing 2019-12-16

    False equivalency. A petition gatherer isn’t an elected official and they deserve as much privacy as you do. If you want to know their name just ask. Forcing them to wear their name on their chest is public mockery and a Republican tactic to delegitimize the work of spreading the will of the people.

  5. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-12-16

    John, prior to passage of the laws Cory (and I) want changed, people sponsoring a petition drive had to register. Those are the people trying to change the laws. Petition circulators are like the voters who put legislators in office; they’re just hyperactive supporters. We’re not asking to keep the sponsors a secret. I respond to you assuming (against logic) that your objection is serious.

  6. Donald Pay 2019-12-16

    John, you have your analogy a little off, but I agree with you that some sort of identification is needed. I just think the statute goes way too far, and interferes with constitutional rights.

    As to your analogy, you and other electors are the ones voting on any initiative. The SD Constitution says “…the People reserve to themselves….” It is the People who act as legislators in passing or not passing initiatives They identify themselves at the precinct where they vote.

    Initiative sponsors do act in one aspect in a legislative role: they draft and introduce legislation. It is right that they are required to identify themselves.

    Circulators, on the other hand, serve different functions, none of them legislative. They are engaging in protected constitutional rights, by petitioning for redress of grievances.. Also, they are using the First Amendment to speak, both for themselves for the petition sponsor and for the people signing the petition. They also serve in a capacity to make the petition as clean and legal as they can make it. That is partly an administrative function, not legislative, that is helpful for the state to carry out its function under the Constitution. Since the initiative is a legal process, I think the State has some minimal interest in how those petitions are presented. In this regard, they would be interested in making sure the petitioning process was conducted in an orderly and efficient fashion. Unfortunately, that is not what present state statutes do. They are purposely confusing, but mostly they are unconstitutional because they were design to frustrate the Constitutional rights of citizens, not to make the system work better for all.

  7. grudznick 2019-12-16

    I’d be OK with no name tags if they wore very specific and identifiable hats. Maybe like a pope hat, only pink. Or, if it’s your second go-around, you can wear a hat like my good friend Bob wears.

  8. Debbo 2019-12-16

    What Mr. Miller Cannizzaro went through was an example of big $ politics at its worst. The people opposed to the petition were trying to thwart the law and deny the voters the opportunity to exert their constitutionally guaranteed will. Today’s SDGOP is doing the same thing via the route of onerous, power grabbing legislation.

    Here’s hoping the court sees through the SDGOP charade.

  9. Debbo 2019-12-16

    I think many women would hesitate to collect petition signatures if they had to display their home address to the general public. We tend to be quite careful about that. Think if those petition blockers/harassers had been doing that to a woman!?! Terrifying!

  10. grudznick 2019-12-16

    grudznick knows many strong and confident women, not Amazonian-types, who could easily handle themselves better than this short 145 lb weakling fellow did when Mr. Glodt’s goon squads put their thumbs in their ears and wiggled their fingers at him.

    Let us not castigate many women as weak and scaredy cattish. That seems sexists and chauvinistic. I think most women would have acquitted themselves better than this fellow did.

  11. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-12-16

    grudzfeke doesn’t know anything about anything and it displays its ignorance in its weak attempts at satire.

  12. Donald Pay 2019-12-16

    In my experience, women do just fine, and there is nothing to worry about. You have to understand that people meeting a person with a clip board asking for a signature is part of the culture and custom of South Dakota. Most people, even if they disagree with your initiative, are not obnoxiously harassing. That guy in Cory’s post was harassed by a professional thug hired by the payday crook, and that’s the sort of thing we faced with the nuclear waste company. Our response was to make it all public, and it turned out the harassment boomeranged on the nuclear waste company.

    But, I agree that having that registry makes it far easier for someone to harass someone, if that’s the game the elite wants to play. If that happens, call the police immediately. Also, make it public. There should be a state law making intimidation and harassment of a petition circulator or signer illegal, but other laws can probably serve to put that harasser in his or her place.

  13. Porter Lansing 2019-12-16

    I met old man Powers in the early 70’s when he confiscated an assault rifle from a buddy and I had to go demand it’s return. I fully agree with that characterization of him. Thuggish and no more intelligent than his kid.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-17

    John, you can ask the circulators who they are and whom they represent. If they refuse to answer, you can choose not to sign their petitions. That problem solves itself, without government regulation.

    And what about the volunteers who don’t circulate on the sidewalks but just carry a petition around privately to their family, friends, co-workers, and other people who already know them? In that case, signers already know full well who is trying to affect our laws. Should such volunteers be subjected to registry and badges and other disclosure requirements?

  15. Porter Lansing 2019-12-17

    John and many on the Republican blog think it’s wrong for petitioners to anonymously attempt to sway political opinions while simultaneously they anonymously try to sway political opinions. That’s irony and it’s often lost on the closed mind.

  16. Donald Pay 2019-12-17

    Well, I can tell you that the Chem-Nuclear harassment operation was more professionally handled, and that was what scared some folks more than some thug in their face would have. These were just a cabal of private dicks acting as if they were conducting an official investigation, but they were insistent in trying to get you to say negative things about how the petitions were handled.

    When we were doing our initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s we never used paid circulators or professional political types to organize our efforts. We were all volunteers and members of the communities where we were collecting signatures, and the people we were going up against were the outsiders. People knew who we were because we did a number of initiatives over 20 years.

  17. grudznick 2019-12-17

    Strange that Bob would be against hats, but ok. So far

    Hats: 3
    No Hats: 1

  18. leslie 2019-12-17

    Republicans harness the Republican AG’s office, essentially the only 100 man (largely) law firm in the state, publicly funded of course as their private legal eagles to bring and defend cost prohibitive, chilling leverage to bear against petitioners, protesters, injestors, hemp farmers anti-abortion gunslinging terrorists and every other little guy v. rich guy, Democratic v. Republican, moral v. amoral capitalist wedge issue propagated by Noem, Daugaard and Rounds on behalf of the dominant Republican legislature, local and state election. End red neck racist regressive SD politics and policies now!!!

    Vote Democratic every time, every office, every

  19. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-18

    Leslie, if Jason Ravnsborg can’t mount any better defense in court than what we’ve seen in SD Voice n. Noem I, DRA v. Noem, and now this trial, I’d say that the Ravnsborg AG-ship is actually helping restore checks and balances by making it easier for us to prevail in lawsuits against his party’s bad laws. But for every law that we can afford to take to court, there are others (abortion restrictions, religious propaganda required in the schools) that go unchallenged. I can’t sue every time Jon Hansen and Mark Mickelson throw another monkey wrench into initiative and referendum; if we really want to protect initiative and referendum, we have to elect a Governor and legislators with more respect for the people’s right to vote.

  20. Porter Lansing 2019-12-18

    Mark Mickelson. That’s the red headed guy Two Page Bill was talking about. Bill’s resident claimed Mickelson threatened her with a beating if she kept on gathering petitions.

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