Effort to change requirements for amending state constitution goes down
"Voters are going to see [this bill] for what it is: an attempt to make it nearly impossible to put constitutional amendments on the ballot,” a veteran backer of petitions in the state said.
PIERRE, S.D. — Anticipating the near-certainty of a losing lawsuit were the bill to become law, Senate lawmakers rejected a proposal to require an equal number of petition signatures coming from each of South Dakota’s 35 legislative districts in an effort to amend the state’s constitution.
In the case of the required petition processes to put initiated amendments on the 2024 ballot, House Bill 1200, carried by Rep. Liz May, of Kyle, would make organizers find 1,000 signatures in each legislative district.
The proposal died by an 8-1 vote in the Senate State Affairs committee.
“Every legislative district should be represented in the petition process,” May said during her testimony in favor of the change, criticizing petitioners for, in many cases, drawing an over-represented number of their signatures from Sioux Falls.
She added that it should be "a little harder" to make changes to the state constitution.
Some senators disagreed with that point: Sen. Michael Diedrich, of Rapid City, noted that every voter in the state has the ability to make their voice heard on referendums on Election Day.
For lawmakers on the Senate State Affairs committee, several of them in leadership, a ruling earlier this month by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that fighting to uphold May’s bill in court would be a losing battle.
The opinion, written by Trump-appointed Judge L. Steven Grasz, overturned the deadline for completion of signature drives one year prior to the election, writing it inhibited the “core political speech” of circulating and signing petitions to further political and social change.
“It was pretty clear about our responsibility to respect the will of the voters reflected in our state constitution,” Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, said. “This doesn't do that.”
Defending the proposal, May disagreed with this fear, saying making rural voices heard was worth “a little bit of a fight.”
Opponents in committee included a handful of veteran politicos in the state concerned with the incredibly high bar the change would incur on petition drives in the state.
“Voters like participating, and voters are going to see [this bill] for what it is: an attempt to make it nearly impossible to put constitutional amendments on the ballot,” said David Owen, the state director of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce.
Over the past week, several advocacy groups and ballot committees behind high-profile campaigns past and present have laid out similar concerns with the proposed change.
South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the committee behind several cannabis campaigns over the past few years, said the proposal would make it “nearly impossible to run signature drives” in the state by making them “extremely expensive and time-consuming.”
In a similar statement on Twitter, Dakotans for Health, the main backers of a petition drive to put legalization of abortion in certain cases on the 2024 ballot, warned that the proposal “threatens your right to make laws.”
Another opponent, Tom Deadrick, the deputy secretary of state, noted there would be huge procedural challenges to the bill for the office, with verifying each district essentially requiring a separate petition verification, he said.
The only vote against sending the legislation to the 41st day, Sen. Casey Crabtree, of Madison, noted his agreement with the proposal’s premise, though an exact, equal number of signatures from each district may not be the proper vehicle.
“The only time I've ever been asked to sign a petition has been in downtown Sioux Falls, so I understand the intent that Rep. May had here, which is making sure rural areas have a voice in this,” he said. “I'd like to see this come back, maybe so that it itself is a constitutional amendment.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.