The exception to South Dakota’s pioneering role in direct democracy
An effort to kick Baltic Mayor Deborah McIsaac out of office over a fight about a housing development highlights a surprising fact about South Dakota’s political process: Voters have been unusually hesitant to use recall elections against officials.
As the very first state to adopt the initiative and referendum back in 1898, the Mount Rushmore State has long been a direct democracy pioneer. But South Dakota has never taken the third part of the direct democracy, the right to use a recall election on the state level.
With only 48 state-level officials, including four governors and 39 legislators, facing a recall in U.S. history, and only 19 or 20 states granting this power to the voters, this omission may not seem like a big deal. After all, South Dakota is one of many states (perhaps 40 or 41, depending on how you count) that have long granted voters the ability to kick out officials on the local level. But even at the local level, the state stands out.
South Dakotans rarely target local officials with a recall. There is no central database of recalls in the state, but over 12 years of keeping track of recalls nationwide, there seems to have been only one elected official who faced an actual vote over the last 12 years — Whitewood Mayor Deb Schmidt, who easily survived the vote in 2011. Additionally, one other official, Trent President Bob Dickey, resigned in 2018 after recall petitions were taken out and signature collection started.
The state has had some close calls during this time. In 2015, a recall against Hartford’s mayor was kept from the ballot by the refusal of the city council to schedule an election after signatures were verified. The mayor eventually resigned, but the Legislature began looking into possible changes to the law to remove the scheduling power from city councils. In 2016, a recall in Rapid City failed after 1,700 signatures were tossed out because the court found that the petitioners hired out-of-state signature gatherers.
In 2011, petitioners seemingly handed in enough signatures for the recall of Huron’s mayor, but the effort failed as a good number of signatures were declared invalid (not an uncommon occurrence).
Other than those notable efforts, there were only a handful of recall threats that even made the newspapers over the years.
For the last time a recall seems to have succeeded in actually removing an official we would have to go back to Yankton in 2007, where the mayor and a city commissioner were kicked out of office.
It may not be fair to compare the state to the largest states that regularly see recalls take place, like California, Michigan, Oregon or Wisconsin. But even among the smaller population states, South Dakota stands out for this fairly paltry total. As a comparison, North Dakota has held 33 recall votes in the last 12 years, with 22 officials removed, 11 surviving recall votes and two officials resigning. Nebraska has had 43 recalls.
It is not clear what explains this discrepancy or why South Dakota never adopted the recall on the statewide level. Looking at the history, it does not appear that voters ever got an initiative on the ballot that would have expanded the right of recall to state-level officials. In 1913, the Legislature did apparently consider a recall law, though that did not advance to the ballot. In 2021, a group called “South Dakota Voters for the Right to Recall” was certified by the Secretary of State’s Office to start collecting signatures for an initiative. However, the effort seems to have died out without much notice. There was also a bill during the most recent legislative session to allow recalls for school board members, but it failed. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, school board members have been a popular target of recalls nationwide.
It is reasonable to argue that the state would not benefit from expanded use of the recall, but there was a high-profile recent example of where recall may have helped solve a particularly difficult political problem. After State Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg struck and killed a pedestrian, it took nearly two years for him to be removed from office by the Legislature. If voters had the power of the recall, Ravnsborg may have been kicked out by voters; been pushed to resign early, as happens in other jurisdictions when the threat of a recall is brought forth; or the Legislature may have felt much greater haste to act.
While voters seem to like the recall power in other states, there is no real evidence to show that it results in better (or worse) governance. It rarely takes place on the state level, and, as we saw recently in both California and Wisconsin, voters have chosen to ratify their past decisions when asked to decide on the recall of a governor. Instead, as with the few in South Dakota, most recalls take place on the local level and do not involve partisan issues so much as policy debates. In that way, the Baltic recall effort fits right in. For South Dakota, the Baltic recall could be an example for other officials. Or, as is likely, it will be an unusual event that passes out of notice for officials once the votes are counted.