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KELO-TV Misreports Facts of Lawsuit Challenging Initiative Petition Deadlines

KELO-TV tries to explain the League of Women Voters’ legal challenge to South Dakota’s 30-day residency requirement for ballot question petition circulators. Unfortunately, reporter Jazzmine Jackson gets the facts completely wrong about one of the core precedents cited in the complaint.

The League’s complaint cites the second federal case where I beat Jason Ravnsborg, SD Voice v. Noem II. Specifically, the League cites U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann’s August 30, 2021, ruling in the case to claim First Amendment protection against the residency rule enacted in 2020 Senate Bill 180:

The First Amendment prohibits government regulation that would make it “more challenging to circulate petitions and collect the required number of signatures….”…Yet that is precisely what SB180 does [League of Women Voters (SD and US), Susan Randall, and Kathryn Fahey v. Noem, “Doe”, and Barnett, complaint, field in U.S. District Court of South Dakota, Southern Division, 2022.06.28, pp. 14–15].

The League’s complaint does not mention the government regulation at issue in Kornmann’s second ruling in SD Voice v. Noem II, the state’s perniciously early deadlines for filing ballot question petitions. But KELO-TV’s research went wildly astray:

The lawsuit also references SD Voice v. Noem which challenged a bill that would have required ballot initiatives to collect signatures equal to 10% of the total votes cast for the governor in the last election. That was an increase from 5%. The bill also would have required petitions to be filed at least one year before the election it would be voted upon and would confine the time to collect signatures to 24 months [Jazzmine Jackson, “Lawsuit Against Noem Focuses on Ballot Initiative Process,” KELO-TV, 2022.07.05].

That’s just wrong. SD Voice v. Noem II had nothing to do with any bill increasing the number of signatures required to put initiatives on the ballot. The complaint Judge Kornmann affirmed on August 30, 2021, dealt with two state laws that set the deadline for submitting initiative petitions twelve months prior to the general election at which the initiatives would be decided. The bills that moved that deadline back from six months prior to the election were enacted in 2006 and 2009. Neither of those bills changed the number of signatures required on initiative petitions, and neither my complaint nor Judge Kornmann’s ruling addressed whether South Dakota’s signature requirements violate the First Amendment.

KELO-TV further misstates the issue by using the conditional tense. The early deadline wasn’t a matter of would have; state law actually required us to submit initiative petitions twelve months before the election for several election cycles. Judge Kornmann overturned that requirement last year and reset the petition submission deadline for initiated laws to the first Tuesday in May of the election year (which is why you have a second Medicaid expansion initiative and a another chance to decriminalize marijuana on this year’s ballot—you’re welcome!).

KELO-TV’s statement that the law challenged in SD Voice v. Noem II “would confine the time to collect signatures to 24 months” is also simply wrong. State law says initiative petitioners cannot collect signatures earlier than 24 months before the election when they want to vote on their issue, but state law does not give anyone a full 24 months to collects signatures. Even Judge Kornmann’s wise reversal extended the circulation time for initiated measures to 18 months while leaving the circulation time for initiated constitutional amendments at 12 months (a discrepancy the state and I are still appealing at the Eighth Circuit).

I know—this is all election-nerd stuff. It is quite possible that no one else reading KELO-TV’s discussion of the League of Women Voters’ challenge to one circulator residency law will notice KELO-TV’s error in explaining ballot question law and precedent. But if you’re going to tell the story, KELO-TV, you’ve got to tell it right.


  1. jkl 2022-07-06 07:58

    Maybe no one else will notice, but it is a good reminder that reported news can just be wrong and too often no one else is the wiser.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-07-06 09:19

    It is a reminder that the news may be wrong, but we should also check the facts before concluding it is wrong. Ballot question law is one technical area where errors are more likely in the press because ballot question law is so technical, unfamiliar to most people, and thus hard to explain. I can understand how normal beat reporters could get this part of the story wrong, since the details are hard to find and known by almost no one.

    But reading the signature quota as a central issue in SD Voice v. Noem II looks like the result of hasty skimming that somehow ignored the clear statements at both the top and the bottom of the August 30, 2021, opinion that make clear the focus of the case is the deadline for submitting petitions.

  3. Donald Pay 2022-07-06 14:14

    You wonder about journalistic practice these days. You also have to wonder about why the Legislature made this law “so technical.” I would say “so confused.” As you state in your comment, “because ballot question law is so technical, unfamiliar to most people, and thus hard to explain,” it requires a good attorney, or an expert (eg., you), to figure it out. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Make the law so convoluted that it confuses grassroots folks who have an initiative to bring, and then eats up their limited funds on lawyers before they can petition, and then requires them to eat up more funds to defend it after they submit their petitions. That’s been the Legislature’s and special interests’ tactic: make the law so confusing that it hamstrings grassroots citizens.

    It never used to be this way, back when democracy was actually practiced in South Dakota. The people, who are supposed “to rule,” according to the state motto, are now relegated to being the slaves the the Legislature and the special interests who control the Legislature and the Kings or Queens that occupy the Governor’s Mansion.

  4. David Newquist 2022-07-06 14:27

    Back in the early days of an internet, when it was done over the telephone lines, a group of college professors put together a site called the Northwest Data Base. It included a journalism review which evaluated the media in the upper Midwest. The discussion concluded that South Dakota had one of the weakest press corps in the nation. That was because of some misreporting of the kind you examined in this post, and it was revealed that high school interns were used to do the major news production in some of the state media.

    In Aberdeen, there were three radio stations and two TV stations with working news staffs, and one fully staffed newspaper along with a shopping paper that printed some news. Today there are no broadcast news staffs working in town, and newspaper is teetering on the brink of closure. It is being produced by a skeleton staff, and is now printed in Sioux Falls, and is more than half filled with canned copy from the AP and other news services.

    Most South Dakotans are unaware that they are not served by any fully functioning news media. A few stalwart reporters throughout the state lend their efforts, but there is no systematic processing of news by a knowledgeable and skilled press corps. Only occasionally do the hateful screeds of Noem get challenged while in the act of committing them.

    We are in a situation where ignorance and malice reigns supreme. We do have blogs which act as an intellectual lifeline for the few mentalities with enough sentience to care.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-07-06 16:16

    The good Dr. Newquist reminds me how important it is that we journalists get the story right. Journalists serve a vital function: if we don’t explain stories of public interest and explain them correctly, no one else will. Lawyers write for the judge; the judge writes for the appeals court and future policymakers. Elected officials like Kristi Noem write for the next election, and they know that clear, detailed explanations of election laws won’t enthuse nearly as many voters as cries of “Fraud!” and “Fetuses!” Someone has to write the story right, with an interest wholly in informing the voters. Someone has to gather the information, build the expertise, and share that expertise with the voters. Even (especially?) if it’s a story on an issue in which only one out of 100 viewers will show any interest, we have to present the facts in full, without error.

    Only journalists fulfill that role. We need more people documenting our affairs of state, for the good of the educated populace Jefferson was essential for America to work.

  6. mike from iowa 2022-07-06 16:36

    What good is accuracy in media whnen your facts don’t align with their alternatibve facts? This nation is getting close to where magat’s version oif things will be the dominant view, imho.

  7. Jake 2022-07-06 18:06

    Guiliani (lying SoS) was the first I’d heard of trumpist bunch use the phrase “The Truth is NO LONGER THE TRUTH!

    That 4 years, going on 6 now, brought out the worst of passion and emotion in many of his followers; leading to Jan.6
    and GOP trumpist “wannabes” of 2022. The sooner a goodly bunch of the “top guns” of that element end up in jail, the better for the democracy called the USA.

  8. John 2022-07-06 18:07

    Friends, my predisposition, my bias, is that folks go into journalism because they could not handle STEM. Supporting that is 2 of my 3 degrees are STEM. My 3 kids 6 degrees are STEM. Contrary, A good friend was wildly successful in STEM, but then chose to become wildly successful in journalism. So, my mind remains open, but the accumulating evidence supports my hypothesis.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-07-06 19:18

    John, can you give examples of journalists who started in STEM majors, then washed out or just chose to pursue journalism instead?

    If there is any substance to your hypothesis, I’d be curious to see if those STEM refugees are any better at analyzing policy and explaining complicated facts than journalists who studied journalism from the start, or those who started in more liberal arts but then decided they needed to apply their creative skills in a field where they could get a regular paycheck.

  10. P. Aitch 2022-07-06 19:39

    Well prepared and expressed comments, Cory. – John’s STEM degrees don’t help him describe an event or opinion nearly as well as Cory describes an event or opinion.

  11. Arlo Blundt 2022-07-06 20:10

    Well…I’m somewhat sympathetic with KELO Reporter Jasmine Jackson. The News Editor who assigned her to the task of reporting accurate information regarding the interpretation of this complicated and confusing law, knowingly written to promote confusion in its implementation, needed to supervise and edit her report for clarity. Television is a terrible media for this type of story. There are no visuals that could be incorporated to clarify the story. A flow chart would have just added confusion. I guess Jazzmine Jackson completed her assignment and submitted her story to the news editor. It’s the news editor’s job to make certain that story is accurate and lucid. In the smoke and noise of a long Fourth of July weekend, the news story did not receive the attention it deserved, from the news editor.

  12. grudznick 2022-07-06 20:10

    BAH. Most “Journalists” are failed substitute PE teachers, who are failed biology teachers.

  13. Arlo Blundt 2022-07-06 20:38

    Another point would be that the focus of the news story seems to be the quandary the League of Women Voters faces in challenging this confusing law, not on the law itself. In that regard, the news story is a human interest article on the plight of the League, which has a small membership, needs to ask other state leagues for assistance, and faces a long and expensive court fight.

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