For the biggest, meanest, most dangerous attack on initiative in South Dakota, turn to Representative Fred Deutsch’s House Bill 1054, which would price grassroots, volunteer ballot question drives out of the democratic marketplace.
Representative Deutsch, backed by prime Senate sponsor Al Novstrup of Aberdeen, who is apparently committed to defiling the memory of Father Robert Haire and Aberdeen’s noble place as the birthplace of initiative and referendum in America, would use House Bill 1054 to expand the information required by statute (SDCL 12-13-11) to be given along with ballot questions on the ballot. Right now, our ballots must include the title, explanation, and recitation of each referred law, initiated law, and initiated amendment. The statute excuses the Secretary of State from having to print the full text of each measure on the ballot.
Deutsch and Novstrup’s HB 1054 would require that, when a voter receives a ballot, the voter must also receive “a copy of the law, measure, constitutional amendment, or other question to be submitted to a vote of the people in its entirety, whether usable or single use.”
In the 2020 general election, 427,529 South Dakotans cast ballots. The state sent out another 15,933 ballots to folks who requested them by mail. Given there were 578,666 registered voters on Election Day, a Secretary of State required by law to make ballots and attached documents available to every voter who might show up could easily have justified printing 578,666 of each ballot and attached document. Given pandemic precautions, ordering just a few such attached documents and requiring strangers to share seems irresponsible. One of the best pandemic precautions, mail-in voting, would also make shared documents impractical.
HB 1054 would thus reasonably require the Secretary of State to print around 580,000 copies of each ballot measure. If the Secretary of State follows Senator Novstrup’s advice that all ballot questions should be printed in 12-point font, ballot questions like 2020’s Initiated Measure 26 could run a dozen pages.
I don’t have a problem with making the text of the laws on the ballot available to every voter. We could save a lot of paper, ink, trash, and money by posting the text online in easy-to-read and easy-to-load plain-text format well before the election. We could make some giant copies and tape them to the walls all over the courthouse. We could even combine this full-text proposal with a nice universal mail-in voting proposal and send a complete voter booklet—ballot, the current pamphlet with Pro/Con statements and sponsor information, and the full text of each ballot question—to every voter in the state.
But here’s the killer: Deutsch and Novstrup want initiative sponsors to pay for the copies of their measures. HB 1054 dictates that “The sponsoring organization of the initiated measure or initiated amendment shall be responsible for the cost of all copies provided to the voters, including the cost of any necessary postage.”
Consider the cost this single sentence would impose on a grassroots organization that sponsors one simple measure that would fit neatly on one simple 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper. The Secretary of State would print at least 500,000 sheets of paper. The UPS Store’s online printing portal limits print orders to 200,000 sheets, but if I run three 166,667-copy orders, I get my copies for nine cents each—$45,000 for the full run. If I put those 500,000 papers in 10-ream boxes, each with 5,000 sheets totaling 44 pounds per box, I can ship each box via the United States Postal Service, with signature and insurance, for $117.14.
The math gets messy, because I have to ship ballots to 66 counties, 44 of which have fewer than 5,000 registered voters and all of which will require some fractional sub-5K case of paper. But I haven’t had breakfast yet, so let’s stick with the 5K boxes and hope things average out.
If I ship 60% of my print run in bulk, 60 boxes, to be available at polling places, I lick over $7,000 in stamps. If I send the other 40%, 200,000, close to the number of ballots we mailed in the 2020 general election, by mail to absentee/early voters at home, I’m licking another $110,000 in standard postage.
I’ve run successful ballot question drives before for less than $20,000. That’s bare minimum budgeting, made more difficult by all the bureaucracy and paperwork that the Legislature has already heaped onto the process, and it works only with issues that rally a huge base of volunteer support and don’t need a lot of campaigning to get passed, but it’s doable. House Bill 1054 raises the cost of sponsoring an initiative drive by $162,000.
And that’s just to ship 500,000 pieces of paper with relatively short initiatives on them. The longer the initiative, the more paper and postage necessary.
Now for out-of-state billionaires like Henry T. Nicholas and big-money special interest groups like the Marijuana Policy Project who can spend millions of dollars on South Dakota initiative campaigns, a $162K from the Secretary of State to deliver initiative text to every voter is no barrier to campaigning. But for grassroots South Dakota groups, that cost can stop a petition drive cold. Volunteers already struggle to scrape together the thousands of dollars in printing and postage costs necessary just to create, circulate, and submit their petitions to qualify for the ballot. They count on volunteers legal advice to navigate the thicket of election and campaign finance law that the Legislature keeps changing and complicating to scare people away from the process. Faced with this $162,000 bill from Deutsch and Novstrup, most grassroots groups could not afford to put initiatives on the ballot.
And that’s Deutsch and Novstrup’s intent with House Bill 1054: price most South Dakotans right out of the political market.
House Bill 1054 demonstrates the Republican Club’s elitist contempt for voters. Legislators like Deutsch and Novstrup don’t have to pay for printing to disseminate the bills they sponsor around the Legislature. They don’t even have to pay for delivery; they get interns and pages to carry the copies of their bills and amendments around the Capitol for them. Legislators don’t have to pay a fee to have their bills heard. They don’t have to pay the LRC a nickel a word for posting bills on the Legislature’s website. Such fees would be absurd and would insult representative democracy; legislators are doing the people’s work, and we the people can and should pay for that work.
Citizens do that same work for the people in the initiative process. Citizens sponsors already pay for their own petition drives, expending enormous resources to collect and verify tens of thousands of signatures for each measure they want the public to vote on. Citizen sponsors establish that the people want their voice to be heard. House Bill 1054 punishes not just the sponsors but the tens of thousands of voters who declare on a legal petition that the public should have its say on an important policy issue.
The power of initiative belongs to all South Dakotans, regardless of wealth. House Bill 1054 would price the initiative process out of our hands and further guarantee that the only folks with a voice in our politics are the wealthy.
Once again, Republicans like Deutsch and Novstrup say they want more civic engagement, but they file legislation to punish real civic activism.
House Bill 1054 gets its first hearing on Monday morning, 7:45 a.m., in House State Affairs. Citizens interested in democracy should contact House State Affairs this weekend and let them know that House Bill 1054 is bad for democracy.