Last November South Dakotans voted to shake up the status quo, adopting a sweeping package of state campaign finance and ethics reforms at home. This follows a recent trend in which voters of all ideological stripes have chosen to reform government when their elected officials refuse to do so — South Dakota joins places like California, Maine, Missouri, and Seattle that have passed voting and campaign finance reforms at the ballot box in the last two years.
But the voters may not have the final say: in other states, legislators and other power players have tried to prevent reform either by repealing voter initiatives or filing lawsuits to invalidate them. The same thing is happening in South Dakota, and the result will be a test for whether the people can defeat those who hold power.
In November, South Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to elect Donald Trump for President, after he heavily criticized super PACs, said that politicians were all bought by large contributors, and promised to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington. For their own state, they didn’t just elect candidates making reform promises — they passed a wide-ranging initiative that creates an ethics commission, limits lobbyist gifts, and implements a voucher system that allows voters to allocate a fifty dollar contribution to a candidate of their choice.
But the status quo in South Dakota won’t go without a fight. Legislators in Pierre have introduced a bill to “declare an emergency” and repeal the new law, and partnered with a state lobbyist to file a lawsuit trying to invalidate it. Just as the desire for reform is not unique to South Dakota, neither is the countervailing battle to keep things the same. All across the country, voters of both parties want to reduce the corrupting influence on the political system, but face fierce opposition from entrenched interests.
A 2015 New York Times and CBS News poll found that 85% of Americans think the campaign finance system should be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt, yet Congress refuses to seriously consider any reform. Missouri voters feel the same way as citizens throughout the nation, and in November 70% of them voted to adopt new limits on political contributions. Last time voters passed limits in Missouri, the legislature later repealed them to allow unlimited donations. This time, several corporations and interest groups have filed two lawsuits to invalidate the limits on contributions by businesses.
What’s happening in South Dakota should cause great concern; it follows a common pattern in which elected officials purport to respect public opinion until the public backs reforms that threaten their hold on power or the clout of their biggest financial backers. South Dakota voters tried to escape this cycle by implementing not just contribution limits, but other reforms that encourage candidates to rely on small donors and ensure politicians play by the rules. The measure was designed such that the next set of elected officials will care more about public opinion because the public, rather than a few big donors, will be the people who funded their campaigns. South Dakota citizens and legislators should do everything in their power to make sure that happens, and should have the support of proponents of democracy across the country.