By: Bethany Bostron
Along with the extensive campaign finance reform posed by Initiated Measure 22, South Dakotans will be deciding whether to amend the state constitution to have state legislative redistricting conducted by an independent commission. The constitution currently provides that the legislature itself conducts state legislative redistricting. The commission established under Constitutional Amendment T would be comprised of nine registered voters selected by the State Board of Elections in each redistricting year (currently every 10 years). These nine commission members would be selected from a pool of 30 applicants comprised as follows: 10 from the Democratic Party, 10 from the Republican Party, and 10 individuals not registered with either party. Each applicant must be registered or not registered with a party for the three years prior to appointment. Of the nine selected members, no more than three may belong to the same party. Commission members are barred from holding office in a political party or certain local or state offices for the three years before and three years after their appointment. The amendment calls for the new commission to redistrict the state in 2017, 2021, and then every 10 years. The new commission must comply with applicable state and federal law when drawing districts and allow for public comment on the proposed map. Attorney General Marty Jackley’s explanation of the amendment does not state any foreseeable challenges to the change.
As to the actual redistricting process, the legislative districts would follow a grid pattern and be as equal in population as possible. The commission would also attempt to keep districts geographically contiguous if possible, attempt to use current boundaries and geographical features, and keep communities of interest together. The commission may not consider party registration, voting history, or the residence of current legislators.
South Dakota Constitution Article III, Section 5 currently states that “Legislative districts shall consist of compact, contiguous territory and shall have population as nearly equal as practicable.” Section 5 also states that the legislature shall make the apportionment, and if it does not do so, the South Dakota Supreme Court will have 90 days to make the apportionment. Apart from the contiguous and “nearly equal” requirements, there are no other guidelines for redistricting under the current regime. Constitutional Amendment T makes some big changes to this process, creating a commission that is both independent and restrained by extensive redistricting criteria.
The amendment is being sponsored by the South Dakota Farmers Union and SDFU President Doug Sombke. Early in 2016, the group gathered 43,000 signatures to have the amendment placed on the fall ballot. This amount was well above the 23,000 required to have the measure approved. Proponents of Amendment T call for the state to put an end to gerrymandering. However, the argument focuses mainly on the overall problems with gerrymandering, rather than specific instances within South Dakota. Opponents are focusing on the fact that redistricting would be done by a commission of unelected individuals. At its state convention this year, the South Dakota GOP passed a resolution opposing Constitutional Amendment T and urging voters to reject the measure. The GOP resolution states that the party supports “legislative redistricting that adheres to the principle of ‘one man, one vote,’ that respects geographical and political boundaries and protects communities of interest in compact and contiguous districts, and that protects the voting rights of minorities.” The key here is that all such redistricting is done by the legislature as a body who is directly accountable to the public every two years.
South Dakota government is currently composed of a Republican trifecta (Republican control of governorship, house, and senate). The last time the Democratic Party had majority control of any body was 1993-94 when they controlled the senate while the house and governorship remained in Republican control. The current makeup of the state house is 58 Republicans and 12 Democrats. The state senate is composed of 27 Republicans and 8 Democrats. All members in both bodies are up for election every two years with a four-term limit imposed. Considering the current political state, the proponent’s gerrymandering claim may be difficult for the public to buy. The majority of voters are registered Republicans and it does not appear that the majority has drawn any extremely crazy districts in order to keep Democrats out of power. Compared to the crazy state delegate lines of Virginia, South Dakota’s current districts seem pretty reasonably shaped.
Another impediment to the amendment’s success is the vast number of measures on the ballot this fall. It is highly unlikely that the public will be able to fully educate themselves on each of the 10 different ballot measures. Constitutional Amendment T hasn’t been receiving a lot of press in the state, as Constitutional Amendment S (expanding rights to crime victims) and Constitutional Amendment U (limiting the ability to set statutory interest rates for student loans) are taking up most of the air time. An informal survey of my own personal South Dakota contacts shows that a lot of people plan to simply vote “no” right down the list of ballot initiatives. This seems like a fair prediction for a state of rural based, independent-minded communities. However, 2016 is proving to be the year of surprises, so I wouldn’t put the South Dakota redistricting commission initiative on the shelves of history quite yet.