By Charles Austin
The power of big money to influence politics is a central fact of American life these days, something that felt more apparent than ever on November 8, 2016. The night capped a record-setting campaign season in which more than $6 billion dollars poured into federal elections, giving the U.S. its first-ever billionaire president in the process.
But election night came with a silver lining in South Dakota. Voters there passed Initiated Measure 22, a sweeping reform that, among other things, created a public campaign-finance program, instituted an independent ethics commission, lowered campaign contribution limits, and cracked down on lobbyist influence and gifts.
Although public-financing laws are already on the books in some form in 13 states and a number of cities around the country, many of these have been under attack since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC. South Dakota’s measure, however, took a more comprehensive approach than those in other states, pairing public financing with lobbying and ethics reforms. The passage of IM-22 was a resounding win for democracy and transparency.
That is, until the legislature swiftly repealed it.
South Dakota is one of 12 states where lawmakers can repeal citizen-approved initiatives without restriction. Before they repealed IM-22, legislators also filed a suit questioning the constitutionality of the measure.
Doug Kronaizl, a spokesman for Represent South Dakota, the group behind the citizen initiative, feels the lawsuit was a smokescreen to justify a rapid repeal.
“The judge didn’t raise questions with the campaign finance provisions whatsoever, yet they were still repealed,” he said. “The law goes into effect. Two weeks later, a group of legislators file a lawsuit against the law, and then they use the existence of that lawsuit as the justification for why we need to repeal the law. So, you got a feedback loop coming out of the legislature.”
Lawmakers then passed their own series of eight bills designed to capture the intent of the voters whose will they had just overturned. In the process, they killed the public campaign-finance system, created loopholes for lobbyist gifts, and replaced the independent ethics commission with a defanged accountability board.
“The legislative branch exempted itself from [the board’s] oversight,” Kronaizl said. “So it only oversees the executive branch, and the person who appoints all members of the board is the governor, who’s the head of the executive branch. You don’t have balanced appointment and it just doesn’t have the same oversight power as what the voters created.”
Perhaps worst of all, lawmakers carved out space for corporations, unions, and individuals to donate directly to candidates, overturning state law that predated IM-22 and was not directly addressed in the citizen initiative.
Lawmakers reasoned that direct donations will prove easier to track than donations through political action committees, but with Citizens United as the law of the land and no state power to stop donors from using PACs in the first place, the law simply opens the floodgates even more than before.
Despite the setbacks, Kronaizl and Represent South Dakota are pushing ahead with a new campaign, this time in the form of a voter-protection and anti-corruption constitutional amendment designed to bypass lawmakers and institute popular reforms. In addition to bringing back some of IM22’s provisions—the citizen ethics commission, lower campaign-finance limits—it also features language to prohibit the anti-democratic repeal of citizen initiatives, preventing future measures from facing the fate of IM-22.
Kronaizl said the voter-protection measures are intended to state that “The voters do know what they’re voting for, and in fact, the voters need to have the final say on these sorts of issues in the future.” He added that the repeal of IM-22 was “completely undemocratic, because you’re questioning whether or not voters are able to think for themselves. I think there’s a lot of arrogance and condescension wrapped up in that.”
While the proposed constitutional amendment undergoes review by the attorney general, Kronaizl has kept busy meeting with voters across the state, in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Madison, and beyond. At first he was surprised by the ideological diversity of the attendees at these meetings.
“You have conservatives, libertarians, Democrats, independents—you have people from all different walks of life, all different sides of the political spectrum,” he said. In a time defined by intense political polarization, this felt surprising, even odd. But the fight for democracy over oligarchy can make strange bedfellows.
“It’s not a partisan issue whether or not the government should represent the voters. That’s just a given.” In other words, this fight isn’t about which party wins elections. It’s about how lawmakers are winning and to whom they’re accountable. And if Represent South Dakota’s efforts are successful, they may lay important groundwork toward eventual federal reform.
“It is sometimes in the back of our heads that what we’re doing is pretty huge, pretty trailblazing,” Kronaizl said. “If more and more states follow our lead, then eventually we’re going to have a critical mass of people out there who are representing states that have these strong accountability laws, and ideally that is what you have to fix the whole federal system.”
But as ever, the most important fight remains at the grassroots.
“The thing that’s on the forefront of our mind is: this is something that we’re doing for South Dakota, because this is something we need. The driving factor is really just South Dakotans wanting to make South Dakota a better place for politics and civic engagement and democratic processes in general. We’ve focusing on the home front, the community right now.”
Charles Austin is a writer and a member of Chicago DSA.
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