South Dakota Healthy Families hopes to put the state's new abortion ban on the ballot in the November election. When I was asked for money for this effort, I wanted to know more both generally and about prospects, strategy and tactics. Neither the proponents of the referendum, nor the national pro-choice outfits had much on their websites, so in the interest of reducing my ignorance about South Dakota, I did some research. Here is what I found out:
Referendums are not new.
It comes as a small surprise here in initiative-mad California, to learn that South Dakota was the first state (1898) to adopt initiatives and referenda. As in most places, putting measures to direct vote was a populist, vaguely progressive effort to overcome the power of entrenched interests. As in most states, the power was relatively little used until the 1970s but has become common since. The Aberdeen News reports that 42 laws passed by SD legislators have been put to referendum, and 83 percent were rejected by voters. Sounds good for pro-choice campaigners, who must gather 16,728 signatures (5 percent of registered voters) by June 19 to force the vote.
So I wondered, has anybody done the polling to find out how a vote might go? Of course, yes. In mid- March, Focus: South Dakota, a Democratic group which employed Robinson and Muenster Associates of Sioux Falls, interviewed 630 voters. They reported:
Anti-abortion leaders scoffed at the results, claiming 64 percent of South Dakotans are "pro-life."
Probably all results on this highly charged issue depend on how the question is asked. In early March, the reputable, Republican-oriented Rasmussen Reports surveyed South Dakotans and found them absolutely evenly divided on the ban, 45 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed. Interestingly, "the poll also found that most South Dakota voters (55 percent) know someone who has had an abortion. Sixty percent (60 percent) say abortion is morally wrong most of the time."
The Focus: South Dakota poll certainly point to the right message for South Dakota Healthy Families: The legislature's ban goes too far. The lack of exceptions for rape, incest, or the mental health of the potential mother moves this particular law over into wacko-land for most voters. That "goes too far" message is pretty much the universal message in negative initiative and referendum campaigns, playing well everywhere to majorities of citizens who oppose any measure that can be stigmatized as "extreme."
An interesting potential sub-theme that could play a lot of ways will also be at work. I'm sure that most South Dakotans don't want their state branded as a wacko place, by either side. This referendum will undoubtedly get huge amounts of national attention and money from all concerned groups. The ban does have national implications so there is nothing wrong with that, but South Dakotans can expect to feel somewhat invaded. A local blog, Moderates from South Dakota predicts what is coming:
I'd predict that the side which convinces more residents that it actually gives a damn about South Dakota will win the vote.
So how does this play on the ground?
Some pro-choice South Dakotans didn't want to take the issue to a referendum. Todd Epp warned on the blog SDWatch that the referendum would take the focus off progressive efforts to replace the right wing governor and legislators. "The problem is Pierre [the capitol.]" He also warned that there is an anti-gay marriage measure on the November ballot, so the abortion ban vote will unavoidably be complicated by the general right wing sexuality panic. That seems darn unpersuasive to me: can we afford to let them veto anything we want to do by hauling out the usual queer bashing? But the presence of the issue on the ballot will certainly increase the already super-heated temperature of the election.
Now that the referendum petition drive is going forward, some reports suggest that South Dakota Democrats have been energized, "contesting far more races than in past years. In fact, the Democratic Party has candidates in nearly 20 more seats than it did two years ago," though still leaving many Republicans unopposed. Republican Governor Mike Rounds who signed the ban saw his approval plummet from 72 to 58 percent.
One exciting member of the new crop of Democratic State Senate candidates is Charon Asetoyer, the Executive Director of the Native Women's Health Education Resource Center. Like Sioux tribal president Cecilia Fire Thunder a supporter of a woman's right to choose. According to the Nation blog, Asetoyer has also long worked to prevent violence against women.
So to donate from afar, or not donate to South Dakota Healthy Families' referendum campaign? I come down on the YES side and I hope anyone following this long post will as well. We can help South Dakotans find a way to advertise their state as a sensible place, a state that refuses to go out on a limb for a minority's obsessions.