As a first-term state lawmaker in 2009, I was feeling pretty good about the bill I had introduced.
Its goal was to broaden participation on petitions used for statewide initiatives.
For decades, I had watched petition circulators collect signatures by the thousands at strategic locations like the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls. And why not? It was an extraordinarily efficient way to garner the required number of signers. However, I thought it disenfranchised rural South Dakotans because it failed to carry the message of the initiated measure to small towns across the state.
If a measure had merit, I reasoned, it wouldn’t have any difficulty collecting names outside Sioux Falls or Rapid City.
Basically, HB1188 required initiated measures to include not less than 5 percent of the signatures of qualified voters in each of at least 33 counties. The bill had some bipartisan support and passed the House 39-27. But it ran into strong headwinds in the Senate, where opponents said it would make the initiated process more difficult.
Fair enough. Our state has a proud history of providing an easy avenue for its citizens to initiate measures — or refer them — and my bill, while intended to bring more rural voters into the process, apparently wasn’t the answer.
Last session, lawmakers tried to address a different concern: outside influence on initiated measures. HB1094 added some restrictions for petition circulators and ballot measure sponsors. The goal wasn’t to make it harder to get an initiated measure on the ballot, but instead to provide more information about those who were pushing an initiative. Were the petition organizers South Dakotans who simply wanted to change things in their state, or out-of-state activists who had little if any stake here but wanted to impose their ideas on us?
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The bill, which became law and is now being challenged in court, established these reporting requirements:
The petition circulator shall certify the circulator’s name, that he is at least 18, physical address of current residence, physical address of prior residence if current residence is less than one year, email address, phone number, state of issuance for driver’s license, state of voter registration, occupation, the ballot question committee supporting the ballot measure, if the petition circulator is volunteer or paid, and whether the petition circulator is a registered sex offender.
Opponents, fresh and frisky from a court victory over Initiated Measure 24, which would have banned out-of-state contributions to ballot question committees, see the challenge to HB1094 in a similar light: It’s also unconstitutional, unfairly targets those who carry petitions and attempts to hamstring the ballot measure process.
Their arguments have some merit, but there is another side, well expressed by the law’s chief advocate, Rep. Jon Hansen of Dell Rapids. Hansen said he “witnessed first-hand manipulation” by circulators in the past. And, he said, the law ensures that the process is “grassroots politics in its purest form.”
The lawsuit may succeed but it’s not a certainty. Most South Dakotans – including me -- don’t like out-of-state money influencing outcomes. While IM24 unsuccessfully tried to address that practice, HB1094 only attempts to cast a bright spotlight on the petition process and reveal the players.
As I re-read the law and took a closer look at the actual forms that petition circulators and sponsors would be required to fill out, it was apparent that they set a higher standard than before. But why not? Petitions will still be circulated. Signatures will still be collected. The difference is that voters will know a whole lot more about who’s doing the petitioning, and that would be a good thing.