South Dakota lawmakers are poised to ban sex offenders from circulating petitions.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved not one but two similar bills, which members said were aimed at stopping sex offenders from getting sensitive information about potential victims.
"This is a group that should not have names and addresses of petition signers," said Rep. Gene Abdallah, R-Sioux Falls.
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom also testified in favor of the bill, saying letting sex offenders circulate petitions created a potential "safety issue."
"In allowing them to circulate petitions, we have created a unique venue where they can size up potential victims and engage them in conversation," Thom said.
Thom also said the petition process itself was threatened.
"If information off a petition is abused and someone is victimized, I think that can cause hesitation by citizens to sign petitions in the future," he said.
There was no opposition testimony to either House Bill 1181, sponsored by Rep. Mark Kirkeby, R-Rapid City, or to House Bill 1186, sponsored by Rep. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City.
Both measures were inspired by the case of a petition circulator in Rapid City, who is also a registered sex offender. Though many petitions have signatures collected by volunteers, some groups also hire people to collect signatures.
Rep. Marc Feinstein, D-Sioux Falls, voted no on both bills. He said lawmakers were unfairly singling out sex offenders rather than perhaps including all violent felons.
"I think we're making mistakes in not including more offenders," Feinstein said.
Feinstein also expressed concern that this bill was targeted at the Rapid City individual who inspired the laws instead of aimed at a broader problem.
Despite Feinstein's opposition, the final votes on both bills were overwhelming: 10-2 in favor. Rather than debating whether sex offenders should be barred from circulating petitions, lawmakers focused on a narrower point - whether that ban should extend to petitions a sex offender is circulating to put himself or herself on the ballot as a candidate.
"We're saying we don't want any sex offenders collecting signatures on nominating petitions, and yet we allow them to do the same thing when they're a candidate," said Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Sioux Falls.
Kirkeby said blocking a candidate from petitioning to put themselves on a ballot might be unconstitutional.
"I believe the great state of South Dakota would have some constitutional issues by preventing a citizen that right to seek public office," he said.
In the end, lawmakers had it both ways: they approved HB1181 after amending it to extend the prohibition to sex offenders running for office. But they declined to make the same change to HB1186, which provides an exception for candidates petitioning for themselves.
The two bills will go to the House floor, where they will be combined in some way into one piece of legislation.
"Let Rep. Jensen and Rep. Kirkeby duke it out and see who wants their name on the bill," said Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids.
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