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Low Turnout Lowers Petition Signature Requirements

Last updated on 2014.11.07

I've spent a good part of this week making lemonade from the lemons the midterms handed us. Have another glass:

South Dakota voters turned out in paltry numbers Tuesday. That's a symptom of weakening democracy.

But that low turnout offers a chance to do more direct democracy during the next two elections. You know I love ballot measures. A friend just reminded me that, thanks to fewer people showing up to vote Tuesday, it will be easier to put initiatives, referenda, and constitutional amendments on the ballot in 2016 and 2018.

South Dakota calculates ballot measure signature requirements on the basis of the total vote for governor in the most recent election. Placing an initiative or a referendum on the ballot requires signatures totaling 5% of that gubernatorial vote. Putting a constitutional amendment to a public vote requires 10%.

In 2010, 317,083 South Dakotans cast votes for governor. This year, only 277,249 did. That decrease of more than 12% means we will need almost 2,000 fewer signatures to place an initiative on the ballot. We will need almost 2,000 fewer signatures to refer any of the Legislature's bad ideas to a public vote. We will need almost 4,000 fewer signatures to ask voters to amend our state constitution.

Some candidates will also have a lower signature hill to climb. Partisan candidates must gather signatures equal to 1% of the last vote for their party's gubernatorial candidate in the jurisdiction in which they are seeking office. Republicans get no advantage here, since Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard got just a hair more votes this year than he did in 2010. Governor Daugaard has thus raised Republicans' statewide petition signature count by 3. Democratic candidate Susan Wismer drew 42% fewer votes than Scott Heidepriem did in 2010; that means Democrats daring to run for Governor, U.S. House, or U.S. Senate will need 500 fewer signatures to qualify.

Independents get a break, too. Our partisan Legislature raises the bar for Indies, requiring them to collect signatures equaling 1% of the total gubernatorial vote. Still, they will need 398 fewer signatures to make the ballot.

Signatures required: 2012 & 2014 2016 & 2018 change
Initiative/Referendum 15,855 13,863 -1,992
Constitutional Amendment 31,709 27,725 -3,984
GOP Statewide Candidate 1,951 1,954 3
Dem Statewide Candidate 1,221 706 -515
Indep Statewide Candidate 3,171 2,773 -398
*Organize New Party 7,928 6,906 -1,022

There could be a democratic downside to easier ballot access. Just as low voter turnout means candidates can rely on narrower messages and smaller segments of the population to win elections, lower petition requirements mean candidates and ballot measure organizers don't have to appeal to as broad a group of citizens to get their names and issues on the ballot.

This system may offer some equalizing feedback for candidates. If one party's fortune's decline, this system makes it easier for that party to get candidates on the ballot next time. But if we view petitioning as a pre-test of a candidate's organizing ability and civic competence, making that test easier may be the opposite of what a struggling party needs.

Whatever the merits of the system, unless Secretary of State-Elect Shantel Krebs decides to wreak havoc, this year's low turnout means that Democrats, Indies, and ballot measure advocates (balloteers? ballot measurers?) will need fewer signatures to access the ballot in 2016 and 2018. Maybe we can use this break to put some candidates and measures on the ballot that will excite voters and bring voter turnout back up.

*Update 2014.11.07 16:34 CST: Oh! I forgot to mention that organizing a new party will be easier, too. Per SDCL 12-5-1, new party organizers need signatures from 2.5% of the last total gubernatorial vote. Libertarians, Greens, Christian Socialists, and anyone else who'd like to offer an alternative to the big two parties will only need to gather 6,906 signatures, a thousand fewer than last time! Since the Libertarians and the Constitution Party both have now lost their party status by not running anyone for Governor, their recovery plans just got 13% easier.


  1. Steve Hickey 2014.11.06

    Glad to hear. ;-) Stay tuned.

  2. larry kurtz 2014.11.06

    flee southern dakota before the polar vortex freezes your assets.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.06

    Steve, you know where to send the press release....

  4. grudznick 2014.11.06

    Ballot measures seem to target those ever popular "low information" voters. Mr. Hickey, be sure to send your press release to the press and call the TV stations too.

  5. JoeBoo 2014.11.06

    I want weed and gay marriage on the ballot. I think people would be surprised

  6. Roger Cornelius 2014.11.06

    Our first order of business for the public to vote on are:

    1. Ethics laws with consequences for our elected politicians and state employees and a public process to hear complaints.
    2. Demand transparency, end the state's secret form of governing.
    3. Attack the crony capitalism with a real bite, end no-bid contracts, etc.
    Is there anyway to get this done, we know the Republican legislature will not do anything to prevent more GOED/EB-5/NBP scandals, the voters will have to do the work Republicans refuse to.

  7. grudznick 2014.11.06

    Mr. C, for your first ballot measure I hope you have mandatory prison sentences. For your third that seems easy. Just insist that every contract has to have bids and when state troopers gas up they have to drive around at least 5 gas stations to do a little price comparison. And pay cash, to get the bigger discount.

  8. Donald Pay 2014.11.06

    Well, I guarantee you that some corrupt Republican legislator is going to try to change that at the behest of the special interest corruptors that run the state. They've needlessly bureaucratized the I&R process to discourage the uncorrupted voters from messing with their corrupt processes. Any bets on which corrupt Legislator it will be?

  9. Tim 2014.11.06

    I have heard from a couple people I know that didn't vote say "what's the sense in voting, elections are bought by the rich anyway". I tried to make the case that they can't buy individual votes if we all vote, all I got was an eyeroll. I fear voter turnout will continue to drop as long as super PACs continue to operate as they do now.

  10. Jenny 2014.11.06

    Have Corinna Robinson move to Sioux Falls to build name recognition. We need someone in Sioux Falls to wake up voters and to give them a reason to vote Democrat. I could call up Tim Walz - SE MN DFL US House Rep and first military veteran elected to Congress for advice. Tim Walz is hugely popular in conservative SE MN because he fights for veterans. He is a huge, and I mean huge voice for veterans, and its why he's won in a conservative rural district. We need to get back to bread and butter issues.

  11. grudznick 2014.11.06

    Mr. Tim, that's one of the reasons I was a backer of Mr. Pressler. He was bashed on both sides by these PAC monsters and took it with an iron jaw. Mr Wieland claimed to be against big money but he had the most big PAC money behind him. And Mr. Rounds had some big money behind him too. Only Mr. Pressler showed true grit.

  12. Jenny 2014.11.06

    I take that back, DFL MN US House member Tim Walz is the highest-ranking retired enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress. My mistake.

  13. JoeBoo 2014.11.06

    There are many things that will help the state, but if Dems want to start improving the registration gap, they need to do a few things.

    1. is get a face of the party, I don't care who it is, but 1 person who is the face of the party.

    2. Give younger people a reason to vote. That is why I say weed and gay marriage. As much as conservative SD hates to admit it, they are very popular among the younger people.

  14. Chris S. 2014.11.07

    We need an amendment to the state constitution establishing a non-partisan redistricting commission — something similar to what Iowa does with its congressional redistricting. If we're going to get better representation in Pierre, and convince people that their votes matter, we need to stop the shameless gerrymandering of our state legislative districts.

    The People ought to choose their representatives — not the other way around.

  15. Les 2014.11.07

    """We need an amendment to the state constitution establishing a non-partisan redistricting commission""". I like the general idea, Chris. How you going to keep the fingers out of that pie? Our non partisan Judges may be good for the most part but they do know where their bread is buttered.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.07

    Non-partisan redistricting commission? Good idea, Chris! That would help! How about going whole hog and not only having non-partisan redistricting, but non-partisan Legislative elections, like in Nebraska?

    Les, you do have a point that it will be tricky to keep partisan fingers out of the pie. We can try to recruit a non-partisan committee, elected by a committee with at least an even balance of Dems and GOPers, if not verifiably fair and non-partisan pickers. We can also lock that committee into tight, objective rules to prevent gerrymandering.

    We can also lock down the redistricting committee the way we lock down a jury. When they are on the clock, they are locked in a room with no access to information about where certain legislators live or the partisan registration and participation statistics for any precinct.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.07

    Update! I forgot to mention new-party organization yesterday! The low turnout also decreases the number of signatures one needs to form a new political party. Libertarians, Constitution Party, and others will need 1,022 fewer signatures to be recognized as an official party by the state. I've added the numbers to the chart in the original post.

  18. So pardon if someone has already suggested this, but what if Democrats and Independents tried the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach: If the relevant political discussion seems to happen in the Republican primaries (in part because South Dakotans are loyal to the Republican brand), what if everyone just switched their affiliation to Republican?

    (I realize this would be nearly impossible, as people are often tied to their political affiliation as a sense of identity and would not want to give it up, and maybe it's not desirable for other reasons, but I put the idea forward as an interesting hypothetical exercise.)

    This would have to be followed by a change in the system so the top two vote-getters in the primaries are the ones who compete in the general election, such as in place in California. But if we are likely to remain such a strong one-party state into the future (as California is), we should restructure our system so that we still get a good debate, and not let voters default to R vs. D.

    Democrats would be giving up their voice in choosing Democratic national political candidates (though of course gaining a say in Republican candidates), but really, South Dakota is so far down the list that we hardly have a voice in that contest anyway.

  19. JeniW 2014.11.07

    Heidi, are you sure that the Republicans would want the Democrats to join them?

  20. barry freed 2014.11.08

    We need a lot of Initiatives to cure a lot of problems in Pierre.
    Then we need everyone to vote, so one Initiative should be to create a cash Lottery paid out to the people who vote. Make all Lottery sales points have a Notary so one could register and vote while getting a Powerball. First prize: $1 million, 10 second prizes: $100,000; 100 third place prizes for: $10,000 each. ...and all Ballots counted by hand, not machine, to ensure accuracy. Lottery winners picked by a Brownie Scout from a rolling barrel filled with the names of those who voted. Lottery paid for by a Sales Tax on political advertising. Let those who would come here with their deep pockets to pick our leaders reward the voters.
    See what kind of turnout we get with a Lottery, and how people vote on what we want or don't want, the issues being quietly decided in Pierre.
    But why wait... any patriotic millionaires out there willing to put up $3 million and start the South Dakota Voter Lottery wheels rolling now?

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