EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories revealing the results of a new statewide poll conducted by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota.
Many South Dakotans feel that democracy is not working very well in America right now, but those same people are highly supportive of their own right to make law directly from the voting booth.
According to a recent statewide poll, a wide majority of South Dakota residents supports the citizen-led ballot-initiative process as a way to make laws or change the state constitution, and a significant majority said they don’t want the state Legislature to make the process more difficult.
The poll was conducted in late April through a partnership between South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota.
In the telephone poll of 500 South Dakota residents from across the state, 74.8% of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed that “citizen ballot initiatives are an important part of the democratic process.”
On a follow-up question, 62.6% of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that “the South Dakota Legislature should make it more difficult for citizen initiatives to get onto the ballot.”
Those same respondents show strong dissatisfaction with democracy in America overall, with 64.9% reporting they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with how democracy is working in America right now.
The margin of error in the poll was plus or minus 4%; respondents were generally aligned with the overall population of the state in terms of age, gender and political party.
Compared with Republicans, Democrats and Independents were far more likely to support the ballot-initiative process and oppose legislative interference. Compared to older respondents, people in the age range of 18-34 were more supportive of initiatives and more opposed to lawmaker intrusion.
The timing of the poll may have influenced the results. The survey was done six months after the November 2020 election in which South Dakotans voted for legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, but both measures have been challenged.
On medical marijuana, Gov. Kristi Noem pushed for a one-year delay of legalization and implementation, a proposal rejected by lawmakers. On recreational marijuana, Noem was the driving force behind a lawsuit challenging the legality of the measure now under consideration by the state Supreme Court.
Some users of social media have expressed deep disappointment that Noem and the Legislature have intervened to stall marijuana legalization, which passed with 70% of the vote for medical and 54% for recreational.
Amy Scott-Stoltz, president of the League of Women Voters of South Dakota, said poll respondents seemed to express their understanding that ballot initiatives are critical in a state like South Dakota, where one party has a supermajority over the legislative process.
Right now, the South Dakota Legislature is made up of 94 Republicans, 11 Democrats and no Independents.
The breakdown by chamber is 62 Republicans (89.6%) and 8 Democrats (11.4%) in the House of Representatives, and 32 Republicans (91.4%) and 3 Democrats (8.6%) in the Senate. This past session, three Senate committees — where the heavy lifting of the lawmaking process occurs — did not have a single Democratic member, including the judiciary, taxation and military and veterans-affairs committees.
That level of Republican control is significantly disproportionate to the statewide breakdown of voter registration by party.
As of early May 2021, there were about 584,400 registered voters in South Dakota. Broken down by party affiliation, there were about 280,500 Republicans (48%), 158,200 Democrats (27%) and roughly 141,500 Independents or those with No Party Affiliation (24%).
The outsized level of Republican control of the Legislature does not allow for a variety of voices to be heard or new ideas to arise, Scott-Stoltz said.
“Right now, 50% of the population may not be represented in the Legislature,” she said.
Supermajority GOP control makes the ballot-initiative process the only viable way for non-Republicans to bring forth new laws or constitutional amendments, she said.
“The state motto is, ‘Under God, the people rule,’ and the ballot initiative the best way to live that motto,” she said.
From 1996-2018, a total of 74 ballot measures made it to the statewide ballot, and voters approved about 40% of them.
In the past decade or so, the process has been used to enact a statewide ban on indoor smoking, increase the minimum wage for workers, require a balanced state budget and expand gambling in Deadwood.
Lawmakers have taken several steps in recent years to alter the petition-circulation and ballot-measure process.
In 2018, lawmakers referred a constitutional amendment to the statewide ballot to require a 55% passage threshold for future initiatives, which voters defeated. A separate measure to require future ballot measures to contain only one topic was passed.
In the latest legislative session, lawmakers passed and the governor signed a law to create a registry of petition circulators, require them to wear badges, and make some of their personal details, including phone number and email address, public information. A judge recently ordered a stay on part of that legislation. Lawmakers last session also passed a law requiring ballot language on petitions to be printed in at least 14-point type size.
Former House Speaker Mark Mickelson, a Republican from Sioux Falls, was a primary supporter of IM 24 and the single-subject measure on the ballot in 2018.
In an email to News Watch, Mickelson said he felt then and still does that the South Dakota initiative and constitutional-amendment process is vulnerable to outside interests.
“The current ballot initiative measure [process] is not really being used by grass-root South Dakotans but rather has been co-opted by out-of-state, moneyed interests that use our inexpensive media markets and low signature gathering requirements as a way to test out their ideas,” Mickelson wrote.
Senate President Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, said recent legislative action regarding ballot initiatives has been aimed at protecting the integrity of the initiative process.
Schoenbeck said the process has been hijacked by out-of-state groups that use South Dakota as a testing site for ballot measures that may eventually be brought forward in numerous other states.
Schoenbeck said recent ballot measures have been too long and sometimes address more than one topic, making it hard for voters to know exactly what a measure will do and hard for them to make a fully informed decision. The 2020 Initiated Measure 26, which would legalize medical marijuana, contained 96 separate sections of information in its full form.
“These people are dragging out these ballot measure that are 25 pages long when you could do it in two paragraphs,” he said. “The only reason you add volume is to confuse or to hide the full issues.”
Schoenbeck backed a joint resolution in the last legislative session to put a measure on an upcoming statewide ballot that would require a 60% majority vote for some measures to pass instead of the 50% threshold now in place. Schoenbeck drew criticism for successfully amending the resolution to put the measure on the next primary election ballot that is typically dominated by Republican voters.
The South Dakota Legislature in 2017 voted to repeal Initiated Measure 22, a ballot initiative that would have created an ethics commission, implemented public funding of election campaigns and increased regulation of lobbying. The measure passed with about 52% of the vote, but lawmakers repealed the act and then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the repeal.
Rick Weiland of Sioux Falls, a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has led a number of ballot-initiative efforts and is now part of a group called Dakotans4health that is pushing a ballot measure to expand Medicaid eligibility.
Weiland said many South Dakotans lack confidence in the state Legislature to enact sensible legislation on a variety of issues. Weiland said recent versions of the Legislature have spent an inordinate amount of time legislating on moral issues or, for example, trying to limit the rights of transgendered people.
“The Legislature is out of step with the voters, I think that’s obvious,” Weiland said. “Are these ideas that citizens are launching in the state of South Dakota bad for the state? No, but they just can’t get them done in Pierre. They really don’t like the voters taking this legislative power into their own hands when the Legislature fails to act.”
The League of Women Voters of South Dakota is engaged in an effort to collect signatures to put a measure on the 2022 ballot that would create a redistricting commission that Scott-Stoltz said would reduce gerrymandering and restrict lawmaker influence over the process of drawing their own legislative boundaries. Other ballot measures proposed for the 2022 election year include a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility for more low-income residents and another that would open primary elections to non-affiliated candidates and voters.
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