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Petition Reform Turning into Partisan Tricks; Amendments Hurt Indies, Kill Placeholders

Last updated on 2015.03.11

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.


  1. Jim C. 2015.01.28

    And so Ricestroffer gets to charge more for his petition signatures or some other "consultant" will. Do the legislators realize by making petitions harder they are just helping these hacks capitalize off the process. Check out the facebook group for petition coordinators they are making a lot of money off petitions!! Those guys at the courthouse can sometimes make $500 a day with their bonuses!!

  2. Disgusted Dakotan 2015.01.29

    This is not Republicanism, this is the same tactic that every corrupt political machine in history has used.

  3. judy judy 2015.01.29


    Regarding replacing candidates, I don't think your understanding that the Party chair names the replacement candidate is correct. My reading of the Statute is that the Precinct Committee people and Party officers of the affected election district select the new candidate.

    12-6-56. Vacancies in party ticket to be filled by party committee. If a vacancy occurs by reason of death or withdrawal after a primary election, a party candidate for public office may be replaced by a new nominee if a meeting of the appropriate party central committee is held and the results are certified to the appropriate official within the times prescribed by § 12-8-6. If the vacancy is a party candidate for presidential elector or statewide office, the vacancy shall be filled by the State Party Central Committee. If the vacancy is a party candidate for public office other than presidential elector or statewide office, the vacancy shall be filled by a vote of county party central committee members in attendance who reside in the affected district.
    Source: SL 1929, ch 118, § 56; SDC 1939, § 16.0243; SL 1973, ch 74, § 12; SL 1991, ch 119, § 1; SL 2007, ch 75, § 1.

    I am not sure how it has been done in the past but the statute is pretty clear as to how it should be done.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    Jim C, yes, I'd say 88% more.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    Judy, point taken—I oversimplify. The party chair and associates pick the replacement. SB 69 as amended severely, indecently, and without principle limits the conditions under which the party chair and associates may pick a replacement.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    DD, I share your disgust. I want open, honest access to the ballot for all citizens. We should enforce rules on how people access the ballot, and there should be consequences for violating those rules, but we need nor additional barriers to Independent and third-party participation. The whole point of being Independent is non-partisanship, is not asking people what party they belong to, but working with all voters. Making an Independent ask what party voters belong to and then turn away from those who name a party is inimical to the Independent spirit.

  7. Nick Nemec 2015.01.29

    The proper reform would be to back the primary election day back to early September and move all petition filing dates accordingly. This would give political parties plenty of time to recruit candidates, candidates who have had time to digest what happened in the just completed legislative session. Compressing the election season would intensify the action and therefore increase citizen interest and voter turnout.

    Senator Corey Brown finds the practice of "placeholders" abhorrent? Oh the horror, break out the smelling salts, probably the biggest spewer of party talking points in Pierre is shocked! Shocked I say! Imagine that, politics might be going on in Pierre!

    Brown needs to focus his mighty powers on issues that matter. How about a $100,000,000 plan to boost the economy in SD? Approve Medicaid expansion.

    What about the looming crisis in education? The shortage of teachers just now manifesting itself and set to explode in the coming years. Of course Senator Brown has a list of talking points as long as Dennis Daugaard's arm why we can't head that shortage off by increasing teacher pay.

  8. Nick Nemec 2015.01.29

    Or maybe Senator Corey Brown would like to correct an anti-democratic practice that is against the State Constitution yet is condoned in Pierre. It's common practice in Pierre for the Republican members of legislative committees to have private unscheduled meetings before scheduled legislative committee meetings. The disposition of many bills is decided at this unofficial meeting where the public and Democratic legislators are excluded. The good Senator is a high ranking legislative leader in the majority party and has the power to prevent this abuse but choses to advance proposals that limit ballot access instead.

    We all have our priorities.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    Indeed, the horror, Nick. I wonder which is more abhorrent or does more actual harm to the public: a legislative election in which one or more candidates have been nominated by a party central committee instead of by a few dozen neighbors, or a legislative election in which a candidate runs unopposed?

  10. tara volesky 2015.01.29

    Well they just eliminated any good Independent candidate wanting to run for office. We should all just register Republican and run, because you have about an 80-100% better chance of winning. Then, after you win, change back to you original party or Independent.

  11. Bob Newland 2015.01.29

    I see that Brown would let candidates withdraw if they die. Was that an oversight on his part?

  12. Caitlin Collier 2015.01.29

    I am so personally angry, hurt and insulted by the proposed place-holder provisions that my emotions are roiling. How dare they!! Was Sen. Brown in the ER last March when I got my husband there just in time. No. And if he had been in my shoes, I doubt he would have given a rat's ass about getting doctor's notes to excuse him from running. Who would lie about a situation like that!! How dare you, Senator! Do you really think so highly of your position that you think some conspiracy would occur if you did not create these draconian rules? Shame on you!!

  13. Donald Pay 2015.01.29

    I've never liked the placeholder gimmick, so I'm not that concerned. But the whole idea of front-loading things is ridiculous. Nick is right: the party primaries ought to be held in early September. Shorten the whole stinking process, and make it easier, not harder, for independents.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    Caitlin, your anger is entirely justified. Senator Brown did not think about privacy and real people when he crafted this amendment... or he did, and he is just that insensitive.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.29

    I'm with Nick and Don. Put the primary the day after Labor Day. Existing parties get maximum time to recruit candidates for all slots. New parties get time to form in response to election-year lawmaking and issues. Independents and other underdogs get more time to decide and circulate. And everybody enjoys a shorter and we would hope cheaper campaign season, which increases ballot access by not limiting viable candidates to retirees like Larry Pressler and wealthy folks whose spouses can keep the family income flowing like Rick Weiland.

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