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SD Legislators vs. Voters: Putting Nation's Oldest Initiative and Referendum Process Under Threat?

A historic anti-corruption referendum approved by South Dakota voters in 2017 was later overturned by GOP lawmakers who claimed the public had been hoodwinked into voting yes. (commondreams.org)
A historic anti-corruption referendum approved by South Dakota voters in 2017 was later overturned by GOP lawmakers who claimed the public had been hoodwinked into voting yes. (commondreams.org)
July 5, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – In 1898, South Dakotans voted to become the first U.S. state to let citizens vote directly on laws through the initiative and referendum process, but a political blogger says state lawmakers are slowly eroding the process.

Cory Heidelberger maintains the ways used by voters to pass proposals at the ballot box have been under attack since 2017.

That's when Republican Party lawmakers used emergency powers to repeal a voter-approved anti-corruption referendum establishing ethics and campaign finance reforms, saying constituents didn't understand what they were voting for.

"There's no data saying that any specific number of people went to the polls and didn't get what they were voting on,” Heidelberger stresses. “It's an ideological position. When you say to me that voters don't understand what they're doing, you're saying to me you don't trust the voters, you don't respect the voters."

Heidelberger, a Democrat and Aberdeen native, fell short in a recent signature-collection effort to repeal legislation passed this year that creates a state registry of petition circulators and requires them to wear badges.

Supporters of HB 1094 say the law brings transparency to the initiated measure process.

A citizen-led initiative was used successfully three years ago when state residents voted overwhelmingly to cap interest on payday loans, after lawmakers refused to consider such legislation.

Heidelberger worries the new laws passed this year that add more regulations to the initiative and referendum process will be followed by more.

"It's only in the last several years when the South Dakota voters have maybe broken a different way from what their legislators want,” he states. “The Legislature just kind of had enough of us raining on their parade."

In the U.S., 26 states have an initiative and/or referendum process, most of them west of the Mississippi.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD