Senate Bill 180, Senator Jim Stalzer’s retread of Representative Jon Hansen’s circulator registry and badges, was supposed to get a hearing in Senate Local Government yesterday, but it looks like they ran out of time and pushed SB 180 back to next Wednesday, February 19.
Good—that gives Chairman Jensen, Vice-Chair Duhamel, and the five other committee members, as well as the sponsors of SB 180, a chance to consider this vital amendment:
Why, with all the problems South Dakota faces and all the substantive issues the Legislature has to resolve, would I make a fuss about three semicolons?
Because those semicolons matter centrally to the clear meaning and application of this proposal, and because while billionaires pay big bucks to barristers to properly prune and punctuate their perpetual trust laws, ballot question laws have no such well-paid watchdogs, so here I am. Walk with me….
I’ve had some fellow ballot initiative and referendum advocates ask me if SB 180 applies to volunteer circulators. I’ve told them that, as far as I can tell, no, it does not. Sections 3 through 6 indicate that the bill intends to require pre-registration, fees, badges, and state-issued identification numbers of paid circulators only. As emphasized by the separate definitions in Section 2, SB 180 appears to intend to exempt volunteer circulators from any such requirements.
Sections 9, 11, and 13 indicate an intent to end the requirement that volunteer circulators give out any personally identifying information while they are circulating. Requiring such prior disclosure violates the Constitution and stifles volunteer recruitment. Sections 9, 11, and 13—applying identical language to the separate statutes on circulating petitions for initiated constitutional amendments, initiated laws, and referenda, respectively—strike the circulator’s name, e-mail, and phone number from the form that circulators must provide to every petition signer, thus ending the constitutional violation and the bureaucratic hassle of having to get the Secretary of State’s approval for each volunteer circulator’s customized handout. Paid circulators will still need to put their state-issued identification numbers on their handouts, but SB 180 appears to reset petition law to the long-standing-until-recently practice of allowing volunteers to get involved with petition drives immediately, without any pre-approval or forced disclosure.
However, Sections 9, 11, and 13 muddle this paid/volunteer distinction with one punctuation error. Let’s look at how SB 180 words and punctuates the new language concerning the circulator handout:
The Each petition circulator shall provide to each person who signs the petition a form containing the title and explanation of the initiated amendment to the Constitution as prepared by the attorney general; any fiscal note prepared pursuant to § 2-9-30; the name, phone number, and email address of each petition sponsor; the name, phone number, and email address of the petition circulator; and a statement whether the petition circulator is a volunteer or paid petition circulator and, if a paid circulator, the amount the circulator is being paid; and the petition circulator’s circulator identification number.
The semicolons throughout this passage, which appear in current statute, separate distinct items required on the circulator handout (title and explanation from AG; fiscal note; sponsor contact info;…). Those semicolons are properly deployed to delineate items in a complicated list. The last semicolon, the one added by SB 180, separates the identification number from the condition “if a paid circulator” and the information that condition requires. With that final semicolon, SB 180 would require paid circulators to provide their rate of pay, but then would require all circulators, paid or volunteer, to provide their circulator identification number.
Petitioners reviewing state law would get mixed messages. On reading SDCL 2-1-1.1, SDCL 2-1-1.2, or SDCL 2-1-3.1, volunteer circulators would read past that new last semicolon and think, “Oh, jeepers, I need to write my ID number on my handouts!” Conscientious volunteers would then scour through the subsequent ballot question laws, trying to find what ID number they’re supposed to use and where to get one, and they’d find nothing.
SB 180’s sponsors and Senate Local Affairs can avoid this confusion with one simple amendment: strike the final semicolons in Sections 9, 11, and 13. The statutes laying out the information required on circulator handouts would then read, “Each petition circulator shall provide… a statement whether the petition circulator is a volunteer or paid petition circulator and, if a paid circulator, the amount the circulator is being paid and the petition circulator’s circulator identification number.”
Dropping these three semicolons makes Sections 9, 11, and 13 align with the intent of the rest of the bill to distinguish volunteers from paid circulators. It also ensures we don’t end up in court (again!) for violating the rights of volunteer petition circulators. Dropping the semicolon is a small change, but it makes the law crystal clear for South Dakotans striving, as my friends and neighbors always do, to scrupulously follow the law while circulating ballot question petitions.