I guess it was too much to hope that the Legislature could do petition reform without making things worse. But no: propose a bill dealing with election law, and Republicans will get out their knives and do all they can to cut more people out of the political process.

After a week of delay, Senate State Affairs finally revisited Senate Bill 69, the primary petition reform bill proposed by the Board of Elections. Committee Republicans did not amend SB 69 the way the ACLU and ballot access expert Richard Winger testified was necessary to protect the access to the ballots that the courts have said is new parties' constitutional right. The committee did not fix the legislation to avoid the court challenge the ACLU said South Dakota could face if it moves the new-party petition date to February.

Instead, Senator Corey Brown (R-23/Gettysburg), seconded by Senator Dan Lederman (R-16/Dakota Dunes), amended a whole different section of statute to change the requirements for Independent candidates to get on the ballot. Right now, Independents seeking statewide office must obtain signatures from a number of registered voters equal to 1% of the total votes cast for governor in the last general election. Based on the 2014 turnout of 277,403 voters, that's 2,775 signatures. Lawmakers amended SB 69 today to change the requirement to 1% of all registered Independents. That number shifts from month to month, but the latest number from the Secretary of State counts Indies at 103,856. That means Independent candidates for U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and PUC in 2016 will need to gather just 1,039 signatures, 63% fewer than current statute requires.

Hold your huzzahs, Larry Pressler. Current law also allows Independents to get signatures from any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, as long as that voter has not signed for another candidate. Right now, Indy candidates have 522,636 registered voters whose signatures they can pursue. Given a state population of about 850,000, an Independent petitioner's chances of picking an eligible petition signer out of a crowd at a Stampede or Rush game is about 61%. Under this amendment to SB 69, bolstered by a second amendment by Senator Ernie Otten (R-6/Tea), those odds drop to 12%.

Just how much harder does this amendment to SB 69 make it for Indies to get on the ballot? Let's imagine an ideal situation, the perfect candidate who can get every eligible voter to sign. To get all the necessary signatures, plus the smart 20% cushion to prevent error, an ideally appealing Indy petitioning under current law needs to approach (2,775 ✕ 120% ÷ 61% =) over 5,400 people. Using the same math, under SB 69 as amended, an ideal Indy would need to approach (1,039 ✕ 120% ÷ 12% =) over 10,200 people.

In other words, an Independent now has to work a crowd or a neighborhood 88% harder to get on the ballot.

Why do that, Republicans? Making it harder for Independents to run for office serves no public good. It serves only the dominant party's interest in nipping the power of a surging portion of the electorate in the bud.

Senator Brown further stunk up Senate Bill 69 by attacking the "placeholder" practice in which candidates with no intention of standing in the general election petition their way onto the ballot in the spring, then withdraw after the primary, allowing party chairs to pick replacements. The parties (Democrats more often than Republicans) avail themselves of placeholders when they can't recruit definite candidates by the end of March deadline and want to keep trying until August. Moving the petition deadline to the end of February cuts further into the time parties have to recruit candidates, making the placeholder tactic more valuable. Senator Brown, who said last week he finds the placeholder practice "abhorrent," amended SB 69 to forbid it. Under his amendment, the only ways candidates can withdraw will be if...

  1. they get nominated, elected, or appointed to another elective office that they can't hold simultaneously with the one they are running for;
  2. they move out of the district.
  3. they die; or
  4. they or immediate family members are diagnosed with an illness after filing and the candidate produces a note signed by two doctors describing the illness (that's got to violate medical privacy rules, not to mention common human decency).

I can barely get past the Ed-Rooney-to-George-Peterson crassness of condition #4 to fully calculate the electoral mischief. But I can pick my jaw up off the floor long enough to indict Senator Brown's placeholder amendment on two counts. First, Brown's amendment leaves no room for replacing a candidate who petitions seriously, then gets caught in a major scandal. That omission could bite any party.

More importantly for understanding what's really happening now with SB 69, consider that if Brown's amendment has any merit, it lies in the notion that letting party chairs pick candidates is undemocratic. If that's his point, I would agree, to an extent. But Brown's amendment still lets party chairs pick replacement candidates when "There is no other nominee for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate as of the time of the withdrawal." That clause says that in an uncontested election, the party chair gets to name not just a replacement candidate but the actual officeholder, which is even less democratic than the placeholder practice. Translation: Senator Brown isn't fighting for democracy. He's just fighting Democrats.

Senate Bill 69 and its companion bills SB 67 and SB 68 weren't perfect when introduced, but I was willing to support them, assuming we could make some changes that would protect the integrity of the petition process without suppressing citizen participation. Alas, today's Senate State Affairs Committee action shows the Republican majority would rather kick people out of the electoral process. Unless legislators can snuff out this malicious intent and return to serving the public interest with these bills, the petition reform package should be killed.