voting, petitions, elections

Is the initiated measure process broken in South Dakota?

January 20, 2017

South Dakota is given credit for being the first state in the nation to adopt the initiative and referendum process 118 years ago, allowing citizens to propose initiated state statutes.  The right to amend the South Dakota constitution through this process was given to the citizens in 1972.  Since 1898, South Dakota voters have seen as many as 14 ballot measures in 1916 and a low of one in several other years, with the most recent being 1993.


This past November, ten measures were certified to appear on the South Dakota ballot.  Four were approved and six were defeated.  In recent days, several state legislators have indicated that they will be introducing bills during the 2017 legislative session that could significantly alter the petition process.  It will be important for citizens to provide respectful, informative input to their legislators concerning any potential changes to the ballot measure process.  You can find your legislator’s contact information at


In South Dakota, we have four distinct processes we use to make changes to state laws and/or the state’s constitution.  Three are initiated by the citizens and one by the legislature.


The Initiated Measure process is used to add to, amend or repeal existing state laws.  Petitions must have signatures of registered voters equal to five percent (13,871) of the total vote for Governor in the last gubernatorial election.


A Referred Law is a petition process that prevents a measure passed by the legislature from becoming effective.  It must also have signatures of registered voters equal to five percent of the total vote for Governor in the last gubernatorial election.  Petitions must be filed within 90 days of adjournment of the legislative session in which the measure was passed. 


An Initiated Constitutional Amendment is a petition process that proposes to amend, repeal, or add to provisions in the state’s constitution. This petition has a much higher threshold than an Initiated Measure, requiring signatures of registered voters equal to ten percent (27,741) of the total vote for Governor in the last gubernatorial election.


Lastly, South Dakota’s constitution allows the legislature to refer a newly passed law directly to the voters for their approval.  This process takes a majority vote of the legislature and cannot be vetoed by the Governor.


Here’s a look at a few plans that are currently being considered to change the above processes:


One plan is a model based on portions of the recently passed (November 2016 - 55.7% to 44.3%,) Colorado law (Amendment 71) that requires initiated measure petition circulators to get signatures from two percent of the registered voters in each of the thirty-five senate districts.  As stated earlier, South Dakota now requires signatures from five percent of those who voted for Governor in the last election (no geographical representation required).  Another plan may include changing this five percent to be calculated based on the number of registered voters (which would more than double the current number of signatures needed).  While on another front, some legislators are kicking around the idea of increasing the number of votes necessary in the legislature to refer a constitutional amendment to the voters (currently requires only a majority). 


When Colorado leaders were crafting changes to their constitution regarding the ballot measure process, supporters such as State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, Governor John Hickenlooper and four former governors stated that it should be more difficult to modify these documents.  They indicated that requiring a broader sample of voter support ensured that citizens from across the state had a say in which measures were placed on the ballot.  They, along with a host of other state leaders, pointed to the apparent ease of collecting signatures in heavily populated urban areas compared to sparsely populated rural areas, where rural citizens had a limited voice in determining which issues appear on the ballot.


While on the other hand, several grass-roots organizations in Colorado including the Colorado Fiscal Initiative, New Era Colorado, Conservation Colorado and others said that some of the changes will make it more difficult for citizens to exercise their right to initiate modifications to state statute or the constitution.  Leaders from these groups said that sometimes the will of the people or issues of broad public interest are not adequately addressed by the political process.  They are concerned that requiring the collection of signatures statewide would make the process of placing an initiative, referred law or constitutional amendment on the ballot even more difficult and costly, leaving only well-financed campaigns able to carry out the complicated signature process.


These as well as other arguments will be brought forth in the coming weeks during the 2017 South Dakota legislative session.  Yet, we all can agree that South Dakota citizens should be informed not only regarding the candidates on their ballot, but just as importantly about various ballot measures that could fundamentally change our state’s laws or constitution.  State officials, such as Attorney General Marty Jackley, have been contemplating what could be done to make sure that voters get accurate information about ballot measures.  While State Senator Jim Bolin (Canton) and Representative Don Haggar (Sioux Falls) as well as others are looking at ways to require a broader sample of voter support.  These efforts could have a profound impact on our current ballot measure process.


What do you think?  Is the South Dakota ballot measure process broken?  Your state legislators want to hear from you about this and other topics of interest.  They rely on citizens like you to provide respectful, informative input concerning issues.  You can find your legislator’s contact information at


Rob Timm, CFRE


Chiesman Center for Democracy


Since 1995, the non-profit, non-partisan Chiesman Center for Democracy has been dedicated to promoting active civic education and engagement across South Dakota through its various programmatic activities.  To learn more go to

legislature, elections, voting

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election results

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Click here to go to the SD Secretary of State's website

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