By Nathan Barton
In South Dakota, this election, there are several constitutional amendments being proposed. Amendment T purports to “remove politics” from the legislative redistricting process by creating a special commission. The advocates’ slogan is “The voters select their legislators, the legislators shouldn’t select their voters.” The amendment is supposed to prevent gerrymandering, ensure political fairness, treat minorities (in South Dakota, that is the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota (Sioux).) fairly, and take politics out.
But a quick reading reveals that politics is STILL going to be in the process, and indeed, the process could be even more political. Right now, a 15-member committee of the legislature’s two houses proposes the redistricting, which is then voted on by the legislature, and signed (or vetoed) by the governor: it is a law. This would be replaced by a new commission of nine members, selected and appointed by an existing board, the State of Board of Elections, which is… (guess what) appointed by the same legislators who are condemned for playing political games.
That Board of Elections is frankly partisan: the chair is the (elected and partisan) Secretary of State, has two board members which are County Auditors (also elected and partisan) appointed by the Speaker of the House (again, elected and partisan). The remaining four members are appointed by the two major (and usually only) political parties: one each Democrat and Republican from the House and one each from the Senate. So usually, four of the seven members are Republican (the dominant party) and the other three are Democrats.
Under the new Amendment, that very partisan board would appoint a nine-person redistricting board which would have three Republicans, three Democrats, and three “independents” (members of any other party in the state, as well as those who are “unaffiliated”). Of course, the likelihood of any of the three “independents” being truly so is very small indeed. But it looks good on paper.
The “public” would get a 30-day comment period, but no provision for anything BUT comment. We know how well that works out.
So this is nothing but another eyewash job: it may look good on paper but really the process will be as political and partisan as ever.
A better solution was actually proposed more than twenty years ago, with two parts. The first(most important): REDUCE the power of the legislature: return control over their own destinies to the people of South Dakota. Get rid of not just most of the laws, but virtually all of the regulations (which even in a state like South Dakota still dictates too much of our day-to-day lives). Of course, THIS is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The second part of the solution was also simple. Replace the current process: nomination (which in SD is by petition only), primary, and general election, with an “election by petition” process.
South Dakota, has about 800,000 population (including about 80,000 enrolled AmerInd tribal members) usually has about 350,000 votes cast every two years. Each South Dakota legislative district has about 10,000 voters, and elects one Senator and two Representatives. (There are, mostly in tribal areas, some “half-districts” that each elect one Representative.) Therefore, each Senator represents about 10,000 voters (23,000 residents) and each Representative 5,000 voters (11,500 residents). So, in reality as few as just over 5,000 people actually get the Senator they voted for, and just over 2,500 really get the Representative that they voted for. Theoretically, of 350,000 votes cast, a mere majority of 175,035 (175,070 for Representatives) get the Senator that they wanted (50.001%): 174,965 (174,030) are NOT truly represented in Pierre (49.999%). This stinks.
In an “election by petition” there would be a “nominating season.” During that time, candidates circulate a petition, to get registered voters (regardless of political affiliation) to sign that “I, JOHN DOE, do select MARY SMITH as my X Senator or X Representative in the Legislature.” Anyone who got at least 10,000 signatures for Senate, or 5,000 for the House, would be elected BY THE PETITION. At a set date, anyone without at least 75% of the required amount of signatures would have to withdraw, and the people who previously signed their petition would be released to sign for someone else, either an entirely new person, or someone who already has 75% of signatures that they need. At the end of the season, most people will have a Senator and a Representative that THEY personally agree to represent them in Pierre. It’s not perfect, of course: inevitably as many as 10 or 20% will not have someone, or will be part of a group of more than 10,000 or 5,000 that signed up. But MUCH better than that 50.001/49.999 split.
With modern internet and computer systems, keeping track is relatively easy. No worries about where to draw those district lines, or how many of one group or another would be harmed. If the enrolled tribal members really DID agree politically and nominated only other tribal members, that would give the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people about 3-4 Senators and 7-8 Representatives: much better than today. But everyone else would benefit too: you would have people in Pierre nominated by and representing teachers, or farmers, or military veterans or medical workers. You could have someone represent a constituency located just (or mostly) in Sioux Falls or Rapid City – or just representing people in small towns. Or representing just college students or retirees. Or construction workers or – gasp – Lutherans or Catholics!
Of course, that would completely destroy the power of the old political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, wouldn’t it? Which is why it is unlikely to happen. This amendment isn’t about power to the voters, but about maintaining the power of their rulers.
Mama’s Note: Two observations here: 1. nobody can “represent” more than a few people, each of whom must clearly consent and have the power to withdraw that consent. 2. Trusting to computers (in the hands of any sort of politician) to keep this mess organized is a pipe dream.