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14-Point Petition Font, 60% Vote Threshold Moving Through Legislature, Endangering Initiative Process

The war on initiative and referendum continues, and Republicans are winning.

Senate Bill 77: Thinking Go Big or Go Home, Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) upped his font-size requirement for initiative petitions from the already burdensome 12-point font to an excessive 14-point font, further reducing the length and scope of measures that citizens can propose as ballot measures on a single manageable piece of paper. He also read this blog, realized he’d forgotten to include constitutional amendments with initiated laws, and added a provision to ensure his monster-font requirement applies to any initiative petition.

Note: Al’s Senate Bill 77 rendered in clear 14-point Helvetica font on a standard 8.5″x11″ page with minimal half-inch margins takes up  more than one and a half pages, meaning citizens who wanted to amend the same statutes Al is amending with his one bill would not be able to fit the necessary text on a standard sheet of paper along with the page worth of legal boilerplate, signature boxes, circulator oath, and notary seal space required on every petition sheet.

Senate Bill 77 in 14-point font
Senate Bill 77 in 14-point font.

Senate Bill 86Senator Lee Schoenbeck’s (R-5/Aberdeen) bid to promote the Secretary of State to Supreme Court Justice has steamed through the Senate. SB 86 would allow the Secretary of State to reject any proposed initiative petition for a constitutional amendment based on his entirely unqualified extrajudicial suspicion that an amendment violates the single-subject rule or requires a constitutional convention. Senate State Affairs added just one amendment, an emergency clause bringing SB 86 into effect immediately upon passage, preventing South Dakotans from referring to a public vote this stunning revision of the Secretary of State from purely ministerial executive to adjunct to the judiciary and subjecting all subsequent petitions for amendments submitted this year to this dubious hurdle to circulation.

House Joint Resolution 5003: Representative Jon Hansen’s (R-25/Dell Rapids) plot to require a 60% supermajority on any taxing or spending ballot measure made it out of House State Affairs last week. The committee did change the election date from June 2022 to November 2022, meaning that instead of rushing passage with the easy Republican primary electorate, Hansen is willing to wait until the November election and accept enactment in July 2023. If the House or Senate revert the resolution back to its original language placing HJR 5003 on the primary ballot, voters could enact it by July 2022, meaning the three-fifths threshold would apply to any measures on the November 2022 ballot.

As a consolation prize, Schoenbeck and Hansen backed away from House Bill 1249, which would have further complicated the fiscal note required for ballot measures (without increasing the Legislative Research Council’s 50-word limit) and given the Secretary of State power to trigger the three-fifths vote requirement of HJR 5003.

Representative Fred Deutsch (R-4/Florence) also backed away from his portion of the Republican offensive against people power. His House Bill 1054, which would have created crushing printing and mailing costs for initiative sponsors, died in House State Affairs last month. Deutsch withdrew his House Bill 1062, which would have saddled initiative amendment sponsors with the cost of the Attorney General’s poor lawyering, before it received a hearing.

Not all Republicans are trying to take away opportunities to vote. Representative John Mills (R-4/Volga) and a gaggle of family-values conservatives are trying to win their war on sin at the local level with House Bill 1201, which would allow city and county governments to put video lottery to a local vote. If a majority of citizens vote against video lottery, the state would be barred from issuing video lottery licenses to any establishment within those voters’ jurisdiction.

House Local Government was supposed to hear HB 1201 last Tuesday. The committee deferred the bill to Thursday, February 11… then apparently forgot to add HB 1201 to the February 11 agenda. I don’t see it on today’s (Tuesday, Feb. 16) agenda; evidently when Republicans try to expand voter rights, the Legislature has a harder time keeping those measures on the agenda.


  1. Richard Schriever 2021-02-16 08:37

    How to fight back? Well after passing the “Consent of the Governed Act:”

    “Any initiated act or Constitutional Amendment passed by a direct vote of the people, shall not be nullified or altered or amended in any way by any means other to a direct vote of the people.”

    The pass an act requiring all sorts of burdensome font and spacing on LEGISLATIVE bills. One requiring a specific sort of attire be worn by elected officials when on the house/senate floor. One requiring that all speech on the floor be conducted in English, Lakota and Spanish, and that each representative or senator read aloud all proposed legislation on the floor in all of the 3 languages.

    Seriously. Getting the Consent of the Governed Act:

    “Any initiated act or Constitutional Amendment passed by a direct vote of the people, shall not be nullified or altered or amended in any way by any means other to a direct vote of the people.”

    Will take back the government from the MINORITY Republican rule.

  2. Rebecca 2021-02-16 10:01

    What continues to surprise me is, given how much the people of this state profess to love the initiative & referendum process, and how angry they profess to be when it is under attack, how very few people show up to testify against these bad bills session after session.

  3. Donald Pay 2021-02-16 10:06

    Thanks, Cory, for graphically showing the foolishness of these measures. Why not 20-point? That might wipe out the signature space altogether, and then they’ve gotten rid of the initiative? That’s their point, isn’t it?

    I happen to agree with the concept they are promoting. Bills and initiatives should, for the most part, be simple and easy to understand. There will always be a few bills and a few initiatives that will be more complex and require more space. I’ve seen 100+ page bills. I’ve never seen a 100+ page initiative. But you get small initiatives and small bills by self-discipline of the sponsors of initiatives and bills, not by stupid mandates like this bill.

  4. Donald Pay 2021-02-16 10:17

    Just a point on this. My experience with this is pretty extensive. When people draft up language for initiatives, as for many bills, it often goes through a number of stages. It starts out simple, then there are meetings and people add points, the thing grows. Then it goes to LRC. That’s where the verbiage and the added sections often come. I think legislators experience the same thing. So we are in the same boat. You start out with a simple concept and it becomes twice as long as when you started out. And all the verbiage seems to be important to someone.

  5. Donald Pay 2021-02-16 13:42

    One final point on this. The Legislature is to blame, mostly. When they started out proposing the up-front bureaucracy that now clogs the pre-petitioning phase of initiatives, the people who were active then (early to late 1990s) warned them that they would end up having longer, more complex wording in the initiatives, and paid circulators from out of state. It was all understandable because that’s the way California’s initiative process got so out of control. It was something we wanted to prevent in South Dakota. We wanted the initiative process to be for South Dakota citizens, and to minimize the political machines of parties or out-of-state special interests from dominating the process.

    These arguments were convincing for a few sessions, but then, in the 2000s, the special interests finally got their “reforms.” These special interests included the Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal League, the Farm Bureau, and the big media conglomerates that owned and controlled the largest papers and TV and radio stations. These interests each had their own reasons, but it came down to two: money and power. They didn’t want state voters having a say in what they or their out-of-state minders were planning. And the media and special interests wanted the money that out-of-state interests would be able to funnel into their coffers.

    Now that our predictions have panned out almost exactly as we said, they try every year to fix the problem they created by trying to cut citizens out of the initiative process by excessive bureaucratization. Here’s my suggestion: Have a committee of folks who have actually brought initiatives suggest reforms, foremost being a vast reduction in the up-front bureaucratic maze. Establish a reasonable deadline that is somewhere between March 1 and May 1. This will be one subject, and it should be a short measure repealing sections of the state code that inhibit state citizens from the initiative process. Call it the Citizen Empowerment.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-02-16 18:23

    Rebecca, yes, there’s a hard disconnect taking place, and the Legislature knows it. The Legislature knows it can wreak havoc with the process through all these technical measures, and most people will never notice.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-02-16 18:27

    Note Donald’s point about how the initiative process solves its own problems. Propose too long of an initiative, and you’ll have a harder time getting signatures and votes. The 2020 marijuana measures, IM 26 and Amendment A, were exceptions to that rule, because their voluminous sections could be marketed with a single, popular, galvanizing word and symbol. And sometimes, long bills are both necessary and good. We don’t need laws to limit the length of initiatives. The whole point of initiative and referendum is to trust the people to do their homework and make good decisions.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-02-16 18:32

    Donald’s experience shows the long arc of the dismantling of initiative. First the Legislature intrudes with all sorts of petition complications that make it harder for volunteers and grassroots groups to participate. Those complications bring in the big-money groups and more complicated measures. Now, with simple, grassroots efforts boxed, the Legislature passes rules that limit the length (font minimum rule above) and scope (single-subject rule and Secretary of State’s pre-emptive power to apply it to block petitions). Pretty soon, folks look up and wonder why we don’t get any initiatives on the ballot any more.

  9. John Dale 2021-02-17 19:40

    I don’t like the trend, but pure democracy is also a dangerous monster.

    Right now, election integrity is the only issue that matters.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-02-17 20:14

    We’re not asking for pure democracy, John. We’re asking for this one expression of direct democracy as a useful and respected check on the abuses of the republican model of government, in which legislators and the governor mistake their ability to win elections as license to ignore the popular will and the public good to consolidate power in their hands.

    Election integrity matters. So does our ability to access the ballot via petitions. Don’t try changing the subject with fake absolutism or an inability to walk and chew gum. The threats to the integrity of our elections in 2020 did not happen on Election Day. They happened afterwards, with arrogant Republican leaders casting false doubt on the integrity of the election or simply ignoring our very integritous votes and overturning what we clearly said we wanted.

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