Press "Enter" to skip to content

Banning Paid Petition Circulators Really About Weakening Democrats and Democracy

The GOP spin machine uses false fears about animal rights activists to reheat his patron Senator Dan Lederman's proposal to ban paid petition circulators. What's the real game here? Weakening Democrats and democracy.

Read Powers's brilliant Newspeak:

Our State pioneered the initiative and referendum process. South Dakota was the first state to adopt initiative and referendum on a statewide level, and did so in 1898, setting an example for the rest of the country. But when we did so, it was about a personal, street level democracy. The system didn’t envision people collecting signatures for a profit. Ballot measures (and for running for office) should be about the ideals of Democracy. Not about which special interest group has deep pockets to pay circulators.

It’s time for paid signature collectors to go. And it would be a great step by the incoming legislature to make it happen [Pat Powers, "Animal Rights Groups Looking at State Ballot Measures. It’s Time to End Paid Petition Circulators," Dakota War College, 2014.12.22].

(Bonus points if you snicker at anti-nanny-state Powers reverently capitalizing State.)

Powers pretends to be a friend of democracy. He really fears it, because he knows the South Dakota Democratic Party's most effective tool against his party's agenda in the last two election cycles has been direct democracy, initiative and referendum. Democrats used the referendum to kill bad Republican legislation on education and economic development in 2012. Democrats used the initiative to raise the minimum wage in 2014. Powers and his Republican friends need to weaken that potent Democratic tool any way they can; banning paid circulators is one way to hamstring ballot measure organizers.

Powers conceals his real target by not mentioning any of those successful ballot measures. He focuses on unpopular measures that have made the ballot but gone down in flames under the pencils of the voters. Ballot measures that get killed do not somehow corrupt "the ideals of Democracy" (more ironic capitalization!); they affirm democracy. They affirm that voters can make up their own minds. If Powers sees something wrong there, he only reveals his own lack of faith in the demos.

If Powers were really worried about the corruption of democracy by big money, he'd be railing against the money that comes after the petitions, the unlimited money that corporations can use to promote their candidates and ballot measures through advertising. But when Rick Weiland called for campaign finance reform, Powers responded with nothing but specious topic-changing and ridicule.

In 2007, the South Dakota Legislature banned payment per signature and non-resident circulators with House Bill 1156. Our Democratic friend Nick Nemec supported this bill, as did most Dems in the 2007 Legislature. But notice that legislators did not prohibit themselves from paying per signature, only those dastardly ballot measure folks who would challenge legislators by helping the demos exercise their own direct legislative authority.

Powers also fails to notice that legislators probably went as far as they could with 2007 HB 1156 in limiting paid petition circulation. In its 1988 Meyer v. Grant ruling, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared that paying petition circulators is First Amendment speech (again, the analogy to Citizens United beckons). The Ninth Circuit 2006 ruling in Prete v. Bradbury allowed limited limits like our no-pay-per-signature law, but Meyer still blocks a full ban on paying petition circulators.

Powers and Lederman are worried about Democrats, not democracy. I don't like paid circulators, either, but banning them is about giving us fewer chances to exercise our right to initiative and refer legislation. Thanks to the First Amendment, the Supreme Court, and the GOP's own embrace of the idea that money equals speech, the proposal will go nowhere.

p.s.: Recall that last July, SDGOP éminence grise Joel Rosenthal poo-pooed Lederman's proposal, saying that paid petitioneering creates jobs. Rosenthal, the classical conservative, said we don't need regulation, just transparency, like big buttons on every paid circulator declaring, "I'm being paid to get your signature!"

pp.s. [11:11 CST]: An eager reader reminds me of this 2009 South Dakota Magazine profile of Father Robert Haire, an Aberdeen priest who advocated for the initiative and referendum in 1891 as a bulwark against plutocracy:

These men make the laws to suit themselves — are a law to themselves. The people seldom get any law passed they want....

Of course, the entire plutocracy, given over to fleecing the values that labor produces, are afraid of the people.... Such fellows will jump on any proposition with both feet when it is proposed to give the law-making power into the hands of the electors.... [T]he people are capable of feeling for, giving form to, and finally decreeing their own laws [Father Robert Haire, Dakota Ruralist, 1891, quoted in Patrick Gallagher, "Faith in the Voters," South Dakota Magazine, originally published Sep/Oct 2009, revised and republished online 2014].

I wonder: would Father Haire see plutocracy afoot in paid circulators or in efforts to ban them?


  1. Patrick Duffy 2014.12.27

    I don't loathe or mistrust Pat Powers with the intensity of most, but I was honestly shocked to read his latest prescription for a more closed and less inclusive society for a couple of reasons.

    First, the process of Initiative is an old one held dear here in South Dakota, a sentiment affirmed and reaffirmed by our state's Supreme Court case law. It seems to me that so much as a smidgen of true conservatism ought to hold the process of Initiative dear. It is the quintessence of vox populi, the voice of the people, a gift from our state's founding fathers that a "conservative" ought to cherish. Nothing else approaches direct democracy as does Initiative, and so Dakota War College wants it limited despite its conservative roots.

    Second, it seems brutal and cheap to to tell T.C. Mits (The Celebrated Man in the Street) that he cannot leverage his voice even slightly by the use of paid circulators, but that the now frighteningly rich can spend nearly inexhaustible sums of money under Citizens United to accomplish their ends, leveraging the voice of a rich man far beyond the rest of us.

    Powers' is a corrupt idea, consistent with the arc of recent decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States: Citizens United, the coldly revolutionary idea corporations are persons and that money is speech, could only have been hatched by professional jurists ideologically inclined, as opposed to judges who bring vast, real world experience and a respect for precedent and tradition to their jurisprudence. The idea itself is so naively radical and marks such a vicious change that one would have believed only a revolution could have made it so, and thus our "conservative" Court reveals itself as anything but.

    Now that the Two Steves, Hickey and Hildebrand, have set their sights on payday lenders and announced the process of Initiative as their weapon of choice to give widespread voice to this issue, Pat Powers takes issue. This is wrong and wrongheaded, unfair in the bitter way practiced by the proverbial kid in the treehouse nobody can stand because he pulls up the ladder so no one else can get in.

    Democracy is for everybody.

  2. Donald Pay 2014.12.27

    Well, you can't ban paid circulation, so the bill will go no where. I think banning paid circulation would be much more in line with the intent of the I & R, and would foster democratic values. But the autocrats' friends, the US Supreme Court, has said over and over that money is speech. So, their money gets to speak, while your speech and petitioning rights are continually eroded away, mostly due to Republicans hatred of real citizen participation.

    There are regulatory means that can be used to require disclosure of paid circulators, which, I believe as yet have not been labeled unconstitutional. The only part of Rosenthal's "reforms" that made any sense was wearing the badge that says "Paid Circulator."

    And, yes, candidate petitioning should come under the same rules as petitioning for ballot measures. Candidate petitioning is, in fact, where most of the fraud occurs. Citizens committed to the cause of undoing the slimy crap that politicians pass are far less "dirty" than the political elite that run the state.

  3. Nick Nemec 2014.12.27

    The 2007 proposal dealt with banning paying circulators on a per person basis. The SDDP supported that position because of previous petition campaigns where circulators paid by the signature had abused the system by copying names out of the phone book in order to pad their pay checks. The SDDP at that time supported allowing paid circulators who have as all or part of their duties gathering petition signatures.

    In the SD Legislature one who wishes to testify on a bill at a committee hearing must identify as a proponent or opponent, during their testimony they are given the opportunity to explain the fine detail which may include some caveats.

  4. Jeff Barth 2014.12.27

    I have done my share of petition gathering; as a candidate, for a candidate and for ballot measures. In our most recent election I was able to have one Republican foe taken off the ballot for insufficient signatures. I can call some paid petition carriers by name and have my own list of volunteers ready to go. I have also had petitions taken out to refer a county opt out that I voted for (they turned on 400 signatures but needed 400 fully filled out petitions!) Bottom line I have been there and have some thoughts.
    1) Statewide candidates and measures should have fewer signatures required. The process needs to be more accessible.
    2) The Secretary of State, county Auditors and city clerks should check the validity of the signatures.
    3) Filed petitions should be posted online so concerned citizens, corporate lawyers etc. can verify them as well. Why should Madville have to buy a copy of the Bosworth list? Why should the Minnehaha county Republicans need to buy Gordon Howie's petition to verify it?

    The minimum wage measure our State voted for is the perfect expression of our People's common sense. Democrats seem lately unable to tap into that sensible current. Republicans fear it as they fear the people. Perhaps someday we'll have some sensible folks as leaders in Pierre and DC.

  5. Roger Elgersma 2014.12.27

    In 1998 most of South Dakotans were self employed farmers and shop keepers. Most work was done by ones self and kids. Now many jobs are paid by wages. Many people do not have the time to do all the work themself and do not need to be millionaires to hire a few minimum wage people to get signatures. Lots of those cheap workers are trustworthy and deserved more wages, which the common person knows and voted for. Lederman told me to not give my opinion in a committee hearing when other legislators said I had made a difference the time before. Keeping all the information in a box for a few is not smooth running democracy, but just rule by a few manipulators. We need to keep referendums and whatever it takes to get it done.
    I also agree with Barth that we should not need so many signatures.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.12.27

    Nick! Thanks for that context on your "proponent" status on 2007's HB 1156. Perhaps we could stem that abuse by doing what Barth says, coming up with a system that allows more rigorous checks of all signatures, and using that validation process to penalize the paid circulators who abuse their employers by going Clayton Walker and writing in fake names. Or better yet, do what Commissioner Barth says and increase transparency by making the voter registration lists and all submitted petitions more easily and cheaply available to the public. That transparency would make it much easier for the folks hiring the circulators to check the work of their employees before they write any paychecks.

    But as one can draw from Mr. Duffy's eloquent response, the solution does not lie in making democracy harder. It lies in opening up the process and the data necessary to make sure the process is honest.

  7. larry kurtz 2014.12.27

    Telling that DWC had three comments today while Madville produced actual solutions and elicited many more contributions. Good job, CAH.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.12.27

    I'm thinking about safety issues. Would those lists made public include street addresses and/or phone numbers?

    I like all the rest of the transparency suggestions.

  9. Jeff Barth 2014.12.27


    You bring up a good point. One pro circulator in Pennington was a registered sex offender. That brought concern to a number of county authorities as he would be in possession of names and home addresses of every signature he collected. And he just had a good view of you and your children.

    Not to get too long winded on this but I think giving registered voters a unique number that they add to the petition instead of address & county and thus protect privacy. That unique voter number could easily be checked by authorities or other citizens to verify a petition. Cross-referencing signatures between Larry Pressler and Mike Rounds would be a breeze.

    Then perhaps we reduce the signature requirement to say… 500 to run for the US Senate. There are likely better ideas but people are already thinking about the issue.

  10. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.12.27

    Thanks Jeff. The number idea is good.

  11. Donald Pay 2014.12.28

    I've been thinking about how South Dakota could legally favor volunteer petition drives, while still allowing paid circulation to follow the US Supreme Court's decisions. I'm not sure that the Supreme Court's decision means you can't differentiate between those initiative petition drives that are driven by the democratic values and volunteers versus those that use paid circulators and are driven by special interests. You simply can't ban paid circulators.

    The valid signature requirements could differ between campaigns using volunteers versus paid circulators. The signature requirement could be based on a scale that depends on the number of signatures gathered by volunteers versus those gathered by paid circulators, or some such thing.

  12. grudznick 2014.12.28

    The petitioning is the most corrupt process in our otherwise uncorrupt state.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.12.28

    Commissioner Barth! A unique voter ID number! What an awesome idea! Such a unique identifier would have made my Bosworth petition analysis much simpler and faster.

    Let's replace the box for "County" on the petition with a box for "Voter ID Number." Then allow voters to choose: simply print and sign your name, then write in your Voter ID Number, or, if you can't remember your Voter ID Number, fill in your complete address.

    Grudz, with EB-5, redistricting, economic development funds, closed caucus, executive sessions, and crony appointments, petitioning is hardly the most corrupt process in South Dakota.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.12.28

    Deb, I do agree that we could get a bit queasy about privacy issues. Voter registration does not include phone numbers, but it necessarily includes addresses. But aren't addresses public information?

    Right now parties with money can get that information from the voter registration lists. I believe my party has unwisely used that list as a money maker, selling those lists with contact info to third parties. Why not equalize access and let everyone see for free?

  15. JeniW 2014.12.28

    Unique voter ID number? Why not just use valid state ID number, driver's license number, or for some, their veterans ID number?

  16. jerry 2014.12.28

    JeniW, that is a brilliant idea and one that would cost very little if anything to implement. That could also be used at polling stations for voter ID to eliminate voter fraud or the perceived notion of voter fraud. By putting your identification number in and the origin of that number, that would mean your address and other information would only be accessible for those that validate the petition. Between that and Mr. Barth's suggestion of having to have less names for the petitions, this could be a win win for all!

  17. Les 2014.12.28

    Why not the SS number?

  18. Les 2014.12.28

    It may possibly be the only corruption left for Cory to uncover, Grud!

  19. jerry 2014.12.28

    Les, you know how you republicans are over the social security numbers being used for anything. We used to have them on drivers licences in South Dakota, but then Clinton got elected and republicans could only think of the gulags they would be interred in.

  20. Les 2014.12.28

    Yea, Jerry. You know. It's the SS thing.

  21. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.12.28

    Seriously, making my social security number available publicly makes it much easier for creepy criminals to steal my identity. Drivers license or state ID number would work.

    Women who are running/hiding from stalkers don't register to vote so they don't get killed. They often use pseudonyms for all purposes. Remember, most women who die violently are murdered by an ex, whether husband or boyfriend. Perhaps if their street address was protected, more women in danger could safely join the rolls of voters.

  22. jerry 2014.12.28

    Exactly Deb, we have numbers on our VA cards as well as numbers on our drivers licenses that would do the trick. If someone does not have a drivers license, they could use some approved form of ID. The big deal would be like Mr. Barth said as well, why do we have to have so many names on petitions in the first place?

  23. jerry 2014.12.28

    Can anyone really tell me why we cannot petition the state government to allow an initiative for Medicaid Expansion?

  24. Jeff Barth 2014.12.28

    Good idea!

  25. tara volesky 2014.12.28

    How about Medicare for all? That would take out the middle man. If you got the signatures, it would pass.

  26. jerry 2014.12.28

    Medicare is federal different deal.

Comments are closed.