A look at Constitutional Amendment T, legislative redistricting

The next proposed South Dakota constitutional amendment to look at for the ballot questions in the 2016 South Dakota election is Constitutional Amendment T. Amendment T would change the state constitution to have state legislative redistricting done by a commission outside of the legislature. Currently the legislature sets the legislative districts.

This post will look at some of the basics of Amendment T. There may be more posts about Amendment T coming in the future; but this post should be a good starting point for anyone trying to research T.

Amendment T was started by the Farmers Union

#SDRtThing2Do Coalition Campaign Coordinator Mark Remily (left) circulating petition with fellow Democrat at the 2015 Hobo Day parade. Photo by Ken Santema 10/24/15.
#SDRtThing2Do Coalition Campaign Coordinator Mark Remily (left) circulating petition with fellow Democrat at the 2015 Hobo Day parade. Photo by Ken Santema 10/24/15.

Amendment T was started by as a project from the South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU). After successfully completing the petition drive last November the SDFU had a news release which included the following:

 “This was truly a grassroots effort,” says Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union. “Collecting signatures in order to give voters an opportunity to end gerrymandering wasn’t easy – but there was buy-in from South Dakotans, regardless of party, because it is the right thing to do.”

This is not the first time gerrymandering has been a focus for South Dakota Farmers Union, Sombke added. “Gerrymandering is something the membership and County Counselors have wanted to solve for as long as I’ve been involved in Farmers Union. We have tried addressing it numerous ways, but each time we thought we had a solution, it was defeated by legislators. As a Constitutional Amendment, we’ll finally be able to let voters have their say and put an end to gerrymandering.”

The Ballot Question Committee to fund the effort to pass Amendment T also has direct ties with the SDFU. To push for this amendment there was a Ballot Question Committee named #SDRTTHING2DO created. The  #SDRTTHING2DO Committee Chair is Doug Sombke, who is the SDFU President, and the #SDRTTHING2DO Committee Treasurer is Karla Hofhenke, who happens to be the SDFU Secretary/Treasurer. Finally, the contact on the YesOnT website is created by #SDRTTHING2DO is Matt Sibley, who is also the Legislative Specialist for SDFU.

Text of Amendment T

Due to the size of the proposed amendment I will not place its text in this post.  Instead I will direct readers to a December 2015 post I did looking briefly at Amendment T making the ballot, which includes the text of the proposed amendment. The Secretary of State (SOS) website also has the proposed text included on the petition that was circulated for what became Amendment T.

Here are the main takeaways from the text of proposed Amendment T:

  • Article III, section 5 of the Constitution of the State of South Dakota would be replaced with new text.
  • A new independent redistricting commission would be established to create the new legislative districts.
  • The first redistricting done by this commission would be in 2017, in time for the 2018 election.
  • After that, the next redistricting would be done in 2021 (after the census is completed) and be redone every ten years after that.
  • The board would be composed of nine individuals. None of those individuals can hold a state public office or a political party office.
  • No more than three members of the commission can be members of the same political party. This is an important part of the amendment to take note of. I have seen proponents of the amendment say the committee will be composed of 3 Republicans, 3 Democrats, and 3 Independents. That is NOT what this amendment says. Technically it could be any combination, as long as no more than three are from one political party. It could also be something like 3 Republicans, 2 Democrat, and 4 Independents. The Libertarian and Constitution Party would not qualify for 2017 because the amendment includes text stating a political party must have received 2/12% of the votes in the last governors race.
  • The members must not have changed party registrations in the last three years.
  • There is a three-year window both ways for the members of the commission to have no elected or appointed positions for any state public office of political party office.
  •  The legislative districts shall use a mapping process by “creating districts of equal population in a grid-like pattern across the state”. Within that the districts have to be as equal in population as possible, shall be geographically contiguous if possible, shall keep “communities of interest” together if possible, and use visible geographic features or current boundaries such as county boundaries if possible.
  • Party registration and voting history is not data that is allowed to be used during redistricting.
  • The residence of any current legislator shall not be allowed to take into consideration.

There is a bit more to Amendment T. But I think the above summary gives an idea of the key areas of Amendment T.

AG’s Explanation

The Attorney General’s office has provided this explanation for Amendment T:

Title An initiated amendment to the South Dakota Constitution to provide for state legislative redistricting by a commission

State senators and representatives are elected from within legislative districts.  The South Dakota Constitution currently requires the Legislature to establish these legislative districts every ten years.  This measure removes that authority from the Legislature and grants it to a redistricting commission.

The commission is made up of nine registered voters selected each redistricting year by the State Board of Elections from a pool of up to 30 applicants.  This pool consists of applicants registered with South Dakota’s two largest political parties (ten from each), and ten not registered with either of those parties.  A commission member must have the same party registration, or be registered as unaffiliated with a party, for three continuous years immediately prior to appointment.

No more than three commission members may belong to the same political party.  For three years immediately prior to and three years immediately after appointment, commission members may not hold office in certain state or local public offices, or a political party organization.

The commission will redistrict in 2017, in 2021, and every ten years thereafter.  The commission must produce a draft map and allow for public comment.  The districts must be drawn in compliance with state and federal law.

Pros of Amendment T

As mentioned above, the SDFU has created the #SDRTTHING2DO Ballot Question Committee to fund the pro side of Amendment T. The group has established the YesOnT website, Facebook page, and twitter account.  According to the pre-primary financial disclosure filed by #SDRTTHING2DO back in May, the group had $2,127.50 on hand at that time. Since SDFU had already given $22,000 this year (most of which was spent on consulting and surveys) I would expect SDFU will continue to pour thousands of dollars into this campaign.

Here are the main bullet points on the YesOnT website promoting Amendment T:

  • Creates A Balanced 9 Member Committee To Draw The Voting Maps In South Dakota
  • Prohibits Any Member On The Committee From Serving In Public Office 3 Years Before Or After Being Appointed To The Committee
  • Eliminates Potential Bias And Corruption By Banning The Use of Political Party Identification And Incumbency To Manipulate Voter Maps.
  • Establishes Constitutional Guidelines Requiring That Counties And Neighborhoods Be Kept Whole In Voting Districts Whenever Possible
  • Gives Voters Like YOU A 30 Day Public Comment Period To Express Comments And Concerns Regarding Potential Voting Maps

The YesOnT website also includes the following video about gerrymandering:

I think the above video does a good job explaining what gerrymandering is and why it is bad.

Cons of Amendment T

There is a group out there opposing Amendment T as well. The NO T Ballot Question Committee was formed just last week to battle against Amendment T. Since the committee has just formed there isn’t any financial disclosures to look at. But I think the Primary Interest portion of the NO T’s Statement of Organization is interesting. Here is the Primary Interest listed:

Oppose the unelected Gerrymandering commission

The NO T Ballot Question Committee appears to be focusing upon the fact this will be an unelected commission. I often look at the boards and commissions in this state. There are a LOT of unelected commission appointees running many areas of the state. In this particular case the members of this new redistricting commission would be selected by the seven members of the State Board of Elections. Six of these members are appointed on partisan lines, usually 3 Reps and 3 Dems. The seventh member is the Secretary of State, which for decades has been a Rep. That means the Board of Elections is usually by design of the legislature a partisan body. It is this partisan body that will select the member of the redistricting commission set out in Amendment T. There is a valid question as to whether another unelected commission would truly do any better than the current system, especially since even with Amendment T the legislature would have indirect power over those appointed to this commission.

I’m not seeing a lot of activity from the NO T Ballot Question Committee. But the South Dakota GOP did pass a resolution against Amendment T (resolution #5) during their convention this year (and against Constitutional Amendment V and Initiated Measure 22). Here is what I feel are the relevant portions of that resolution:

Whereas, The South Dakota Republican Party supports a 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; and,

Now, Therefore, be it resolved, the South Dakota Republican Party strongly opposes Constitutional Amendment V, Constitutional Amendment T, and Initiated Measure 22 and urges voters to reject those measures on the 2016 ballot.

If I read this correctly, the Republican resolution is basically opposing Amendment T because the current redistricting method already reaches the goal of Amendment T.  The current system technically should provide a similar result to the proposed system; at least according to the SD GOP.

My initial thoughts of how to vote

This is one of the few ballot questions I am leaning towards a yes on. I do believe there were some district boundaries created in 2011 that are more than a little suspect (Dist 1, 2, and 3, are local examples for me). Plus, I just find it to be bad open government policy for an elected body to choose its own boundaries. There is a lot of potential for corruption in the current redistricting method. I don’t think the new system will fix all potential corruption issues, but it should make it a little hard to blatantly redistrict in a manner that purposely gives one party an unfair advantage over other party’s.