SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Attempts by Republicans in the South Dakota legislature to squeeze the direct democracy initiatives long enjoyed in the state were thwarted again this week, as a federal judge in Sioux Falls issued a preliminary injunction against a 2020 law requiring persons paid to collect signatures for ballot measures register with a public database.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol slapped a preliminary injunction against Senate Bill 180, writing that while South Dakota election officials were right to attempt to root out erroneous signatures, their attorneys — and a state legislator — presented no evidence in court that paid circulators were the brunt of the problem in supplying those signatures.
"If the State's interest is, as it says, to ferret out invalid signatures," wrote Piersol, in the Monday, June 14 ruling, "it makes no sense to limit its regulations to paid circulators and not apply them as well to unpaid circulators."
SB 180 passed the Republican supermajority legislature in 2020 and was signed into law by Gov. Kristi Noem. Earlier that year, Judge Charles Kornmann in the U.S. District Court in Aberdeen blocked a similar law, House Bill 1094, that banned out-of-state persons from collecting signatures. Kornmann noted this — and other requirements of that law, such as circulators wear a badge — as an infringement upon the First Amendment.
In Monday's ruling, Piersol pointed to various other attempts by states to restrict direct democracies petitioners — those people who collect signatures of valid voters to put measures before a statewide vote — noting that the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have often sided against regulations in favor of the First Amendment.
South Dakota's Secretary of State Steve Barnett defended SB 180, noting four ballot initiatives were rejected by his office from going before the voters in the run-up to the 2018 election due to a spat of invalid signatures.
Even Rep. Jon Hansen, a Dell Rapids Republican, filed an affidavit with Piersol's court arguing that he'd hired private investigators to suss out identities of circulators and even won a Hughes County circuit court ruling that revealed 45% of signatures for one ballot measure were deemed invalid.
But the court noted that Hansen's sleuthing was unable to turn up whether paid — or volunteer — circulators were guilty for failing to properly vet signatories for that ballot measure. Moreover, writes Piersol, one county court finding of discrepancies in a direct democracy project enjoyed by South Dakotans since the 19th Century were hardly enough to "justify restricting their speech" according to the terms of SB 180, including that they register with a publicly available "directory."
Dakotans for Health, a group seeking to widen the terms of eligibility for Medicaid, the low-income, federal healthcare program, had filed the lawsuit that led to Monday's ruling.