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Under proposed amendment, bar for changing South Dakota Constitution would be raised

by Tim Anderson ~ February 2018 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Come election time, a South Dakota voter’s ballot can become pretty crowded — filled not just with candidates for office, but a mix of constitutional amendments, initiated measures and referendums to overturn existing state laws. In November 2016 alone, 10 such ballot questions were voted on, including measures on the minimum wage, redistricting, campaign finance and elections.
But it’s not just the sheer volume or the content of some of the proposals that concerns lawmakers such as Sen. Jim Bolin.
“This is not your neighbor coming up with an idea and trying to get it on the ballot; it’s really become an industry,” according to Bolin, who served on a task force of legislators and others this past interim to explore potential changes to South Dakota’s initiative and referendum process.
Out-of-state money and workers come to South Dakota, he says, where advertising is cheap and changing laws or the Constitution is a relatively inexpensive proposition. Sen. Ernie Otten adds that “people can come in here very easily, and then they don’t have to face the consequences of the change.”
Numerous bills (some technical or procedural modifications, others much more far-reaching) have been introduced in 2018. Otten’s SB 9, for example, would require that information be included on the ballot about the fiscal impact of initiated measures or constitutional amendments. Several other bills seek to limit the influence of out-of-state money and hired petition circulators, through new disclosure requirements, campaign finance limits or outright bans.
The interim task force’s work led to 10 bills this year, including Bolin’s SJR 1, which would raise the threshold for changing the Constitution from a simple majority vote of South Dakotans to 55 percent. “If we got this change, I think it would dissuade some of the outside groups from trying to change our Constitution,” Bolin says.
He got the idea from Colorado, where two years ago voters approved Amendment 71. In addition to the 55 percent threshold, Colorado now requires that 2 percent of registered voters in each of the state’s Senate districts sign any petition that proposes a constitutional change. (Bolin decided not to include this latter requirement in SJR 1.)
Some lawmakers would have preferred a higher threshold than 55 percent; other proposals this year would require legislative approval of any constitutional changes (see map for laws across the Midwest).
But the idea of direct democracy has an especially rich history in South Dakota, which in 1898 became the first U.S. state to authorize voter initiatives and popular referendum (the ability for voters to change the Constitution didn’t come until much later).
“We have great pride in that history,” Otten says.
These direct-democracy initiatives were added at a time of great concern about the influence that special interests had on the Legislature. Proponents of direct democracy maintain that this tool remains a valuable check on big money in politics and lawmaking, but many South Dakota legislators are now pointing to the dollars behind the ballot measures themselves.


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