Direct democracy continues its resurgence in South Dakota and the performance of the Legislature seems to be a primary source of inspiration.
On Monday, the Secretary of State’s Office received petitions for eight potential ballot measures for the 2018 election, which comes after 10 ballot measures — including Initiated Measure 22 that voters approved — were on the 2016 ballot.
Now, the Legislature’s brazen act of overturning IM22 to start the 2017 legislative session and — as lawmakers claimed — protect the electorate from alleged unconstitutionality has led to three proposed constitutional amendments that zero in on election reform. The petitions for those ballot measures had a total of around 121,000 signatures.
An ethics proposal that is similar to IM22 with the glaring exception of “democracy credits” to help finance elections had 50,000 signatures. The proposed amendment tightens campaign finance and lobbying restrictions, creates an ethics commission and prohibits lawmakers from overturning ballot measures unless the public votes to allow them to do so.
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An open primaries proposal (37,000 signatures) replaces Republican and Democratic primaries with a single primary that includes all candidates for a state office with the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation advancing to the general election. An independent redistricting proposed amendment (34,000 signatures) replaces partisan lawmakers with a nine-member independent commission to redraw voting districts after the census is completed every 10 years.
But it is not just those who circulated and signed these petitions who are embracing direct democracy. In a curious twist, House Speaker Mark Mickelson has led the charge to get a pair of initiated measures on the 2018 ballot.
One proposal calls for a $1 tax hike on a pack of cigarettes to raise money for the state's four technical schools (19,000 signatures), while the other seeks to ban out-of-state money in support of ballot measures (18,000 signatures).
Medical marijuana (15,000 signatures), mail ballots (20,000) and a price cap on prescription drugs purchased by state agencies (22,000) are the other initiated measures that could appear on the ballot.
The next step is for the Secretary of State's Office to examine the petitions and determine if there are enough valid signatures (13,871 for initiated measures and 28,000 for amendments) for the ballot measures to qualify for the election.
Of the proposals, medical marijuana may have the most difficult time making the ballot. In 2015, medical marijuana supporters turned in petitions with around 16,000 signatures but many were determined to be invalid.
Critics, including the state Republican Party, claim out-of-state interests have hijacked South Dakota's initiative and referendum process by financing and supporting ballot measures, which has been the case as it is with politicians who accept special-interest money for their campaigns.
In the end, however, it is South Dakotans who will vote on Election Day and many feel disenfranchised by an increasingly insular Legislature dominated by a handful of Republican leaders. Rather than even crack the door to change, they have chosen to fight it on nearly every front, which was highlighted by the demolition of IM22.
If the Republican Party wants to slow the rising tide of ballot measures, it needs to be more inclusive and in tune to the needs of the entire electorate. Otherwise, it is becoming more clear that direct democracy will become a staple of politics in this state.