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Think it’s easy to get on the ballot?

4/12/2017

In my home state of South Dakota—proud to be the first in the nation to allow pure, direct democracy through initiative and referendum—there’s been a whole lot of knee-jerkin’ going on. After the cluttered 2016 ballot contained a whopping 10 measures, legislators were miffed enough to bring as many or more bills to curtail the voter-initiated the process.

Virtually all of the legislature’s recent efforts to make it harder to pass a ballot measure during the 2017 session would only impact earnest, local efforts. There wouldn’t be any effect on well-funded (read: out-of-state) efforts in the least, but legislators are doing their best to further silence the voice of the people.

That’s too bad, because the system works pretty darn good. It doesn’t need fixing. There seems to be several friction points driving the efforts to make it tougher for citizens to get on the ballot and even tougher to get measures past:

1. It’s too easy to get on the ballot. (Also translates into: it’s too cheap.)
2. We’re being kicked around by out-of-state interests who use South Dakota as a guinea pig for their pet causes.
3. Some measures are dirty, poorly written, or unconstitutional.
4. Our Constitution is a bedrock document and it should be harder than heck to change it. (See #1, above.)

Let’s take a look at the first point in this post. Look for more info on the others in the coming weeks. 

I’ve got news for you on point #1: It’s not easy to get on the ballot and doing so has become even harder in recent years. In fact, there were 20 or so attempts to get on the 2016 ballot by well-meaning groups who worked very hard only to find their efforts falling short.

To get on the ballot today, you need to start nearly two years ahead of time, and signatures need to be filed at least one year in advance. By the time a petition is ready to be printed, the measure must be authored in acceptable form, reviewed by the Legislative Research Council, and an Attorney General’s description added. As of the 2017 session, a fiscal note prepared by the LRC must be attached to estimate the costs of the measure (but not the possible benefits, only the costs).

Payment to professional circulators per signature has been outlawed. Since 2015—when the 2016 ballot petitions were circulated—new I.D. and disclosure requirements for circulators were been enacted. The amount and nature of payment must now be offered to potential signers.

Now finally, at this point, the measure is ready to be circulated. Remember how you avoided eye-contact with circulators in the past? They’re lucky to average 6-10 signatures per hour on a bright, sunny day (of which there are surprisingly few in South Dakota). That means nearly 3,000 hours for an initiated law and almost 6,000 hours for a constitutional amendment.

Daunting to say the least.

Unless the petition effort has a built-in constituency, say, teachers or medical organizations, a paid effort will be needed. Go ahead, multiply it out. But remember, people won’t do this hard job for minimum wage.

Still think it’s easy to get on the ballot?

John Fiksdal, President & Partner
john@m-1.com