After a series of corruption scandals rocked South Dakota between 2014 and 2016, residents of the state overwhelmingly backed a ballot initiative that submitted politicians to new ethics laws, curtailed the number of gifts lobbyists could hand lawmakers and created a public financing system for state elections. The governor and the lawmakers in control of the statehouse had trouble stomaching the proposal and swiftly repealed the entire initiative.
Now, South Dakotans will get a second chance. The state’s Nov. 6 ballot features a constitutional amendment, Amendment W., that would enact stringent ethics and lobbying rules. The amendment includes many of the same provisions as the repealed 2016 initiative: lowering contribution limits, imposing ethics rules and limiting lobbyist power — but not the public financing system.
“We won the first battle,” said Josh Silver, executive director of the national group Represent.Us, which has backed the anti-corruption effort in South Dakota. “The establishment politicians won the second battle. And if we win Nov. 6, we will win the war.”
South Dakota is one of a handful of states and cities where citizens will vote on ballot initiatives that enact anti-corruption laws, including campaign finance, ethics and lobbying reform. Ballot initiatives that seek to correct the corrupting role of money in politics have multiplied across the country since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which legalized unlimited campaign spending by corporations and the super-rich.
Although, in these cases, each ballot initiative has its own local story.
South Dakota’s grassroots campaign to enact ethics rules has inspired a group of activists across the border in North Dakota. An informal “coffee and cookies” get together of 12 North Dakotans led to the writing of a constitutional amendment that would: ban lobbyist gifts and foreign money; require all campaign spending be disclosed; create a nonpartisan ethics board; strengthen conflict of interest rules; establish a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists; and prevent candidates from using campaign money for personal uses.
The activists learned from the South Dakota campaign and wrote their measure as a constitutional amendment so that lawmakers angry about their lobbyist gifts being taken away would not be able to thwart the will of the voters.
Three members of the original group that launched the campaign ― Dina Butcher, Ellen Chaffee and Kathy Tweeten ― hit the road to advocate for the amendment as the “Badass Grandmas,” a name bestowed on them by a friend of one of their grandsons. They gathered 36,000 signatures to put the amendment on the ballot and are now driving from town to town to drum up support ahead of Nov. 6.
“The sense I get from the citizens of North Dakota is they’re for this,” said Butcher, a former official for two Republican governors. “They think we do need some kind of a standard for our legislators, just like other professions.”
North Dakota received terrible grades on the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Scorecard. The state routinely receives an “F” grade for executive and legislative accountability, public access to information, lobbying and campaign finance disclosure, and ethics enforcement management. The amendment aims to address the lack of rules and oversight for huge amounts of political and government operations in the state.
The amendment is opposed by the state’s oil and gas companies, which have spent nearly $300,000 against it, and Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the billionaire Koch brothers. They’re doing so “because [the amendment is] putting the power back in the hands of the people,” Butcher said.
In Missouri, voters will cast a ballot on a wide-ranging constitutional amendment that would put limits on lobbying, lower campaign contribution limits, expand freedom of information laws to the legislature, and create a nonpartisan redistricting process for the state. The amendment is supported by a bipartisan cast including Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf, who has championed ethics reform in the state legislature, and Tishaura Jones, the Democratic treasurer for the City of St. Louis.
A small group of cities also have campaign finance-related initiatives on the ballot for voters this November.
If approved, a ballot initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, would give the city council the power to update the city’s public campaign financing system, establishing a fund to match public dollars to candidates raising small-donor contributions. The city was inspired to ask the public to help update its public financing system after voter-backed initiatives created small-donor matching programs in both Montgomery and Howard counties.
In Denver, Colorado, activists have put the Democracy for the People Initiative on the ballot. This proposal would require the disclosure of dark money spent on city elections, prohibit corporate donations to candidates, lower contribution limits and create a small-donor public matching system for campaigns.
Albuquerque voters will have to wait until February to vote on an initiative creating a new public financing system based on Seattle’s program, which provides voters with small-dollar vouchers to give to candidates of their choice. The activists behind the initiative hoped to get their proposal on the November ballot but the city council refused and decided to hold a special election for it later.
The city initiatives aimed at establishing or updating public financing systems could inspire other cities and municipalities to do the same and give candidates a path to electioneering that’s not raising large contributions from wealthy donors.
“We hope to be a national example,” said Javier Benavidez, director of the Albuquerque initiative campaign. Benavidez added that he is already in contact with other cities like Austin, Texas, and Chicago.