Oct. 13, 2016: This story has been corrected.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.— Ground zero in the ideological war over money in politics and ethics for lawmakers isn’t Washington, D.C., this year.
Instead it’s the windblown plains of this state of just 858,000 people, where a big money brawl over a ballot measure has emerged as a sign of the divisive times.
Come Nov. 8, South Dakotans will be asked to vote on a measure that would reshape all things political by initiating public financing of campaigns, expanding disclosure of political donors and creating an ethics commission to police legislators’ behavior.
Both sides in the debate — the one pushing the initiative and one fighting against it — are planning to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get what they want. But neither side hails from South Dakota.
In this corner: a nonpartisan group focused on political transparency out of Massachusetts, Represent.Us, which steered Measure 22 onto the ballot. Its top funders are mostly wealthy individuals who struck it rich with West Coast tech companies.
And in the other corner: Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based group bankrolled by wealthy industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch and other conservative heavyweights.
What’s happening here is a twist on that old bromide about all politics being local. When it comes to statewide ballot measures, actually most politics is national. And though this battle of the Plains is certainly entertaining to pundits and political junkies, the denizens of the Mount Rushmore State are not especially amused.
“As South Dakotans we like to think of ourselves as really pretty independent,” said Sioux Falls pediatrician Jerry Blake, whose wife is a former legislator. “When there’s people that buy votes or people that buy influence that are not even having anything to do with our state, it’s just not fair. My vote means less, you know, because of that.”
This is not the first time a national group has sponsored a state ballot initiative in South Dakota, which in 1898 became the first state in the union to allow this form of direct democracy. And it’s far from the only one this time around.