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South Dakota has a ballot filled with choices

by Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
October 17, 2006

South Dakotans are going to have to do their homework before voting November 7th. Like most states, there are important races for governor and a congressional seat to be decided. But this year, the South Dakota ballot is heavy with issues. Eleven of them are on the ballot and the issues range from legalizing medical marijuana to banning abortions.

Sioux Falls, S.D. Voters in South Dakota have a long history of deciding what should be law and they do it with three kinds of ballot measures; constitutional amendments, initiated measures, and referred laws. Bob Burns, chairman of the political science department at South Dakota State University calls it direct, participatory democracy.

"We pride ourselves in being the first of the states to provide for referendum and initiatives in our constitutional language," says Burns.

Burns says it's unusual to have so many issues on one ballot. This is the second-longest in state history; nineteen inches long with small print that fills three columns on both sides.

Earlier this year hundreds of people collected thousands of signatures to put the measures on the ballot. Reaction from voters to the ballot varies.

Kenny Sieck stopped at the Minnehaha County Courthouse just to get a sample ballot and a booklet from the Secretary of State's office that explains each issue. Sieck says he knows about only a few of the issues he'll be voting on.

"I just thought I'd pick up some more information, so the wife don't get confused and I don't get confused," says Sieck.

Sieck says they'll sit down over coffee and talk about their vote.

The issues Sieck and his wife will discuss could have major consequences in the state. Some will affect revenue and others could lead to a costly court challenge.

There are four constitutional amendments on the ballot. Only voters can change the constitution. Bill Richardson, chairman of the University of South Dakota's political science department, says constitutional amendments are a more permanent change some advocacy groups prefer to take that route.

One of the ballot measures seeks to define marriage. Another changes how property taxes are assessed. Voters will also decide on language changes to the article that governs the legislature. The last constitutional amendment on the ballot could punish elected officials and judges for their decisions.

"This particular initiative is an attempt to fully and completely corral the judiciary in South Dakota and then use that corralling as a model for what other states should try and do," says Richardson. "But it would make it so no sane lawyer would want to be a judge."

Legal groups from around the country are watching the so called JAIL, or Judicial Accountability amendment. The language came from a group in California. Often South Dakota is a testing ground for outside special interest groups.

Bill Richardson says this issue was supposed to get the most attention this election year. But it was upstaged by another issue on the South Dakota ballot. Referred Law Six is better known as the abortion ban. South Dakota voters are allowed to repeal laws already passed by the legislature. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a law that bans nearly all abortions in the state and punishes the doctors who perform them. The law was designed as a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

SDSU political science professor Bob Burns says the law is restrictive because it's designed for a court challenge. He says voters are more likely to support a law banning abortions if it allows exceptions for a woman who's the victim of rape or incest. But the abortion issue has loyal voters who could change things on election day.

"The pro-life activists vote in very large numbers. The pro-life activists could govern the day on election day even though all the polls leading up to election day show the measure is failing just because they did a better job getting their people out to vote," says Burns.

Burns says it's difficult to predict the outcome on the ballot initiatives because many aren't tied to political party allegiance. This year's political season has been more about grass roots campaigning than political parties.

The last category on South Dakota's ballot includes six initiatives that become law if they pass. South Dakota voters will decide on a couple of tax issues; one will increase taxes on cigarettes, the other will repeal the tax on cell phones. Voters also will decide if video lottery should remain legal. This is the fourth time voters have taken up that issue. Other initiatives are more specific like limiting the use of state air planes and deciding when school can start. And some issues are more controversial like legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.

USD's Bill Richardson says the issue groups can't join alliances this election year because there's no way to know how a person's vote will track from issue to issue.

State officials say fewer people have registered to vote or have voted early compared to this time two years ago. Still Richardson predicts high voter turn out because the issues will resonate with voters.

"What gets people out to the polls are the passion-laden issues. So something that strikes you not necessarily in the rational portion of your being but in your heart," he says. "You feel this is right or wrong and it tugs you out to the polls because you feel so strongly about this particular issue and you want to make sure your voice is heard."

Bill Richardson recommends that voters study and understand every issue. And, he recommends taking notes to the polls to help speed up the voting on what will be a long process.

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