PIERRE — The national drive to change how U.S. presidents are elected is resurfacing in South Dakotan and might be headed for a decision by the state’s voters whether they want to adopt the new plan.
The groundwork for a petition drive is taking shape that would put an initiated measure on the 2012 ballot that would have South Dakota agree to participate in a new system.
The plan calls for states to contract with one another to cast all of their Electoral College votes for the presidential candidate who is the national winner of the popular vote, regardless of whether that candidate won in the state.
A similar attempt to change South Dakota’s laws failed in the Legislature during the 2011 session.
Opponents successfully argued South Dakota would have even less clout than currently afforded by the state’s three Electoral College votes. Currently, the presidency is won by the candidate who receives at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes from the states. States are allowed to decide how their electoral votes are awarded.
Four legislators are leading the petition drive effort. They are Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City; Senate Democratic leader Jason Frerichs, Wilmot; Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron; and Rep. Tad Perry, R-Fort Pierre.
The four form the front line in South Dakota for the National Popular Vote organization. They haven’t filed official paperwork yet with Secretary of State Jason Gant to begin the petition drive. But they are getting closer.
The proposed initiative is currently under review by lawyers in the state Attorney General’s office, according to Tieszen.
They had already fulfilled the first requirement of submitting their proposed measure for a technical screening by the state Legislative Research Council. LRC director Jim Fry gave his office’s clearance in a letter May 6 to Pierre lawyer Mike Shaw.
If they proceed, they will need 15,855 valid signatures from South Dakota registered voters by Nov. 1 in order to qualify for the Nov. 6, 2012, general election ballot.
Tieszen said Thursday he hopes to have the signature drive under way no later than August so they have at least 90 days. He said other legislators also are interested.
“The evidence is strong (nationally) that people fundamentally believe the person who gets the most votes should win, which is true in every election except for president,” Tieszen said.
Sen. Bob Gray, R-Pierre, sponsored legislation in the 2011 session that attempted to make South Dakota part of the interstate national-vote compact. Tieszen, Frerichs and Perry were among the cosponsors of SB 138.
The Senate State Affairs Committee killed the bill 9-0 after its first hearing on Valentine’s Day, with Tieszen making the motion.
Three groups — Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for American and the South Dakota Tea Party Alliance — sent people to testify at the hearing against the change. Shaw and Saul Anuzis, a Republican former legislator from Michigan, spoke in favor.
Anuzis explained afterward that the hearing accomplished the goal of giving the concept a broader public airing in South Dakota.
Tieszen said Thursday he initially was apprehensive about supporting the change but became comfortable as he asked more questions.
“Fundamentally, I believe it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Seven states have agreed so far to the compact. Northern State University professor and blogger Ken Blanchard proposed a simpler alternate last winter.
His approach would give one of South Dakota’s Electoral College votes to any candidate who received more than 30 percent of the popular vote. Typically, that would mean a Republican and a Democrat would each receive one vote. Blanchard would award the third vote to the candidate who received a plurality — the largest percentage — in the election.
Attempts to reach Blanchard by telephone and email were unsuccessful in recent days. However, he explained his plan in a Jan. 31 post on the South Dakota Politics blog.
“If a controversy should arise over a few thousand or a few hundred votes in a state like Florida, only one electoral vote would be at stake instead of 25 electoral votes,” Blanchard wrote.
He added, “It is a sign of dysfunction in our political culture that the National Popular Vote reform has gotten so much traction when a much simpler solution is available.”