Commentary

Regret signing that petition? South Dakota Republicans are here to ‘help’

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Ever since the South Dakota Legislature dismantled the voter-approved anti-corruption measure known as IM 22 in record time, lawmakers and the people who back initiated measures have been locked in a battle of the ballot box. Lawmakers try to throw up as many roadblocks to ballot access as they can while ballot measure backers are intent on getting multiple issues in front of voters.

Through the years, Republicans in the Legislature have tried many tactics to make success tougher for ballot measures. Lawmakers keep busy with little things like boosting the font size to make the petition more unwieldy or increasing a copying fee to make the process more expensive. Sometimes they take on larger challenges like pushing back the effective date of ballot measures or enhancing the penalty for petition perjury.

While lawmakers keep tinkering with the rules governing ballot measures, citizens keep trying to use the public vote to change the state constitution or enact new laws. The secretary of state’s website lists eight initiated measures and constitutional amendments that still have a chance to make it onto the 2024 ballot.

The latest attempt to mess with ballot measures comes in the form of a petition signature do-over. House Bill 1244 would create a process for withdrawing a signature from a petition for an initiated measure or constitutional amendment.

A Dakota Scout story quotes House Majority Leader Will Mortenson of Pierre as saying that the bill will add to voters’ rights. According to Mortenson, they’ll have the right to sign a petition and the right to withdraw that signature.

While the bill seems like just one more attempt to impede the ballot initiative process, the arguments from the bill’s opponents are a little melodramatic. Matthew Schweich, chairman of the Voter Defense Association of South Dakota, drew a comparison that gave signing a petition the same weight as actually casting a ballot.

“We don’t let people submit a form to retract their form when they vote by mail,” Schweich said, “and we shouldn’t, because it undermines the importance of casting a vote. If people sign petitions, they should stick with that decision, just like when you vote.”

With all due respect to Mr. Schweich, signing a petition and casting a ballot are two vastly different actions. Signing a petition doesn’t necessarily serve as an endorsement of the initiated measure. All it does is endorse getting that measure on the ballot. Signing the petition is an important part of the process, but it is not akin to voting.

For their part, the bill’s backers aren’t really concerned with voters’ rights. They’re more concerned with keeping measures they don’t agree with off the next ballot.

The process of getting signatures on the next batch of ballot measures has been particularly acrimonious. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Hansen, a Dell Rapids Republican, says that voters are being misled and misinformed about ballot measures in order to get their signatures on petitions.

Hansen and his Republican colleagues aren’t particularly fond of the current crop of initiated measures and constitutional amendments that could be on the 2024 ballot. These include attempts to establish abortion rights, cut the state sales tax on food, change the primary election system and legalize recreational marijuana.

The irony here is that lawmakers keep monkeying with the ballot measure rules while their own path to the ballot is remarkably easier. Lawmakers can put measures on the ballot just by convincing a majority of the 35-member Senate and a majority of the 70-member House that their idea is worthy of a vote of the people.

Citizens inspired to bring their ideas to a public vote face a far tougher task, collecting 17,508 signatures from registered voters for an initiated measure and 35,017 for a constitutional amendment.