Kansas results fuel effort for abortion vote in South Dakota
Plans moving forward to put constitutional amendment before voters in 2024 to preserve access to abortion in the state. Two previous statewide elections, in 2006 and 2008, rejected legislative efforts to ban abortion in most cases.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakotans are no strangers to statewide votes on abortion.
In 2006 and 2008 voters rejected strict prohibitions approved by the state Legislature.
The chances of a third campaign gained momentum on Tuesday, Aug. 2, when Kansas voters struck down an effort to remove the right to abortion from that state’s constitution.
A South Dakota initiative was already in the early stages of organization in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1972 case that first established a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Kansas is also a Republican-dominated state in the Great Plains. The fact that Kansans supported access to abortion, by a wide margin, reinforces the campaign for a constitutional amendment in South Dakota, said Rick Weiland, co-founder of Dakota for Health, which is leading the petition effort.
“I’m confident we will get this on the ballot,” Weiland said Thursday, Aug. 4. “The state motto is, ‘Under God the people rule.’ Well, let the people decide this and then we’ll live with the outcome. That’s what we are preparing to do, is give the voters a choice.”
That said, intention doesn’t produce a ballot measure, let alone a constitutional amendment. It’s an arduous process. What seems to be enough signatures on deadline day can crumble under the scrutiny of opposition lawyers and election officials.
The number of signatures required for a ballot initiative is 10% of the total number of votes from the previous gubernatorial election. In 2018, that number was about 339,000 votes.
Weiland said his goal is to have 60,000 signatures when they turn over the petitions to the secretary of state.
The process is underway with the state to finalize the petition language and attorney general’s explanation. It will be released in the coming weeks. By law, they can start circulating petitions on Nov. 5, 2022, and have 365 days to submit them.
If approved, it would be on the ballot in November of 2024.
And once on the ballot, any question about abortion is by definition a protracted debate.
The campaigns spent more than $11 million combined in 2006 and 2008 as interest groups such as Planned Parenthood, Right to Life, and NARAL, backed by regional and national fundraising, focused on South Dakota.
In that respect, nothing has changed.
In fact, the light may shine even brighter in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision released last month in the Dobbs v. Jackson case which overturned Roe v. Wade.
More than $12 million flowed into the Kansas campaign, with the sides evenly split in spending.
Weiland said a number of pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, are aware of his organization's efforts.
South Dakota lawmakers will have a chance to alter the state's abortion laws before a statewide vote when they convene in January. What they do could influence the outcome of the initiative.
The Dobbs decision has changed the conversation, said Senate President Lee Schoenbeck, R-Watertown. He said the leadership in the Senate realizes that the Supreme Court has handed state lawmakers a new responsibility.
“All the discussions I’ve heard so far are about trying to make sure we understand where the public is and how we use our new authority and responsibility,” he said.
The prospect of a ballot initiative adds urgency, and reality, to that debate, Schoenbeck said. For instance, most of the discussion in recent weeks has focused on fairly narrow circumstances, with hard stances on either side. Beyond just the question of whether a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the reality is that there are many difficult questions to decide concerning abortion, including the circumstances surrounding late-term abortions and parental consent.
Each debate has its own set of facts and positions.
“We’re a pro-life group, without a doubt,” he said. “What’s going to be critical for any pro-life legislator to discern over the next few months is what’s the best law we can have that is in tune with the public.”
Dale Bartscher, executive director of South Dakota Right to Life, declined comment on the potential for a statewide vote on abortion at this point in the process.
Steve Hildebrand has as much insight into the state’s electorate as anybody.
In the campaigns of 2006 and 2008, his consulting firm managed the effort to reject the Legislature’s ban on abortion. He felt then — based on extensive polling and focus groups — that South Dakotans saw the restrictions as government overreach into citizens' personal lives.
Fourteen years on, that hasn’t changed, he said.
Total bans on abortion disregard whether “a child is conceived in love or hate, and says a woman has no choice in her decision about her future and that it’s left to the government,” he said.
More broadly, the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe and the subsequent vote in Kansas have changed the debate in the upcoming midterm elections, said Hildebrand, a veteran Democrat operative who served as deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2008 and managed contentious battles for control of the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004.
“It’s going to take a lot of wind out of the Republicans' argument about why they should be elected,” he said. “A lot of voters feel that what the Supreme Court did, and what the South Dakota Legislature did, in ‘06 and ‘08, that they went too far.”
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Forum News Service in Sioux Falls. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .