Ballot petition efforts alive and well, despite the Legislature

May 15, 2023 3:29 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Despite the attempts by some legislators to quash the will of the people, ballot petition drives in South Dakota seem to be thriving.

Well before the next election in 2024, the secretary of state’s website already lists four measures that are circulating for petition signatures. These include constitutional amendments for open primaries, abortion rights and lifting the sales tax on food. There is also an initiated measure circulating for lifting the sales tax on food.

The secretary of state’s website also lists another seven measures — five constitutional amendments and two initiated measures — that have not yet fulfilled the requirements for circulating petitions. If all of them make it on the ballot, Election Day 2024 should be interesting.

This wealth of ballot measures seems to fly in the face of the Legislature, which has a long and often well-deserved reputation for trying to put up roadblocks for such efforts.

The Legislature’s reputation for being less than kindly to initiated measures started in the 2017 session when lawmakers filleted Initiated Measure 22, an anti-corruption initiated bill that was endorsed by 51% of voters in 2016.

During the 2017 session, few people were defending Initiated Measure 22. Even some of its backers said it was flawed and likely unconstitutional. At 70 sections and 30 pages, Initiated Measure 22 was a beast of a document that few voters took the time to read. Voters did note that it was labeled as an anti-corruption bill. That sounded good to them as the state was just coming off revelations about the flawed administration of the EB-5 immigrant-investor visa program and the embezzlement of Gear Up program money that was intended to aid Native American education.

However, feeling good about voting for an anti-corruption bill and actually implementing that bill were two different things. Republican lawmakers led a court effort to halt implementation of the law.

Granted, Initiated Measure 22 was unworkable and likely unconstitutional. And, granted, lawmakers did go to work implementing some of its provisions in a constitutional way. Still, that effort to circumvent the will of the voters has left those who run petition campaigns wary of what the Legislature can do to an initiated measure, even if it has been endorsed by the voters.


Legislators didn’t do anything to enhance their reputation in 2018 when they proposed and considered at least 16 bills designed to make changes in initiated measures, constitutional amendments and petition drives. Not all of the bills were implemented, but at each hearing lawmakers heard about how they were blocking access to the ballot and circumventing the will of the people.

Those efforts haven’t stopped. This year’s legislative session brought House Bill 1200, an attempt to change the way petition signatures are gathered for initiated constitutional amendments. Currently, to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, a petition drive needs to collect signatures equal to 10% of the votes cast for governor in the last election. The votes in the last gubernatorial election totaled 350,166.

House Bill 1200 would have changed the requirement on where those signatures come from, requiring signatures to be collected in each of the state’s 35 legislative districts. The bill called for one-35th of the signatures to be collected in each legislative district. Given the total votes in the last election for governor, that’s just a little more than 1,000 signatures per district.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Liz May, a Republican from Kyle, said that constitutional amendments shouldn’t get on the ballot with just petition signatures from the state’s two or three largest communities. Lawmakers can vote to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, Kyle said, and they come from all 35 districts, so people who circulate petitions should meet the same standard.

Notice that May’s legislation applied only to constitutional amendments. Unlike initiated measures, lawmakers can’t mess with the constitution once an amendment is approved by voters. If they want to make changes, they must put their own amendment on the ballot.

Opponents of May’s bill pointed out that it was likely unconstitutional and called it out for what it was — a blatant attempt to make collecting petition signatures for constitutional amendments cumbersome and costly. Blatant or not, the bill was approved by the House on a vote of 47-22. Once it got to the Senate State Affairs Committee, cooler heads prevailed and it was killed on a vote of 8-1.

South Dakota has a long history of giving its citizens the ability to petition for access to the ballot. That tradition shouldn’t change. If the current crop of ballot issues are any indication, South Dakotans are just fine with the current system that lets them do more than vote for candidates on Election Day.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.