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Responding to abortion-rights effort, House approves bill allowing withdrawn petition signatures


Responding to abortion-rights effort, House approves bill allowing withdrawn petition signatures

Feb 20, 2024 | 7:49 pm ET
By Joshua Haiar
Responding to abortion-rights effort, House approves bill allowing withdrawn petition signatures
Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, speaks on the state House floor on Feb. 6, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

In response to a potential ballot measure that would reinstate abortion rights, the Republican-dominated South Dakota House of Representatives advanced a bill Tuesday in Pierre that would allow people to remove their signatures from ballot-question petitions. 

The bill passed 59-9 — with the no votes coming from the chamber’s seven Democrats and two of its Republicans — and now heads to a Senate committee. An emergency clause in the legislation would make it effective immediately, before this spring’s deadline for petitions to place questions on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

Dell Rapids Republican Rep. Jon Hansen is the prime sponsor. He aims to establish a process for withdrawing signatures from petitions for initiated measures, initiated constitutional amendments and referendums. Initiated measures and referendums need 17,508 signatures from registered voters to make the ballot; initiated constitutional amendments need 35,017.

Those wishing to withdraw their signatures would need to notify the secretary of state in writing.

“People have approached me and they said, ‘Hey, I signed that abortion petition because I thought it was pro-life. That’s what they led me to believe,’” said Hansen, who also serves on the board of directors of South Dakota Right to Life. That organization supports a “Decline to Sign” campaign to keep the abortion-rights measure off the ballot. 

Currently, abortions are banned in South Dakota, and the state’s only exception is to save the life of the pregnant mother

Hansen also alleged petition circulators are fooling South Dakotans who think they are signing a measure to repeal the sales tax on groceries but are being given the abortion petition. The Dakotans for Health ballot question committee is circulating both petitions.

“For those people who have been misled, or frankly, fraudulently induced, into signing one of these ballot measure petitions, this simply gives them the choice,” Hansen said. “It gives that individual the choice to say, ‘You know what, I’m sorry, I was misled into signing that. I want to take my name off the thing.’”

Rick Weiland of Dakotans for Health later said the bill is an attempt by Hansen and other anti-abortion activists to prevent the ballot question from reaching the November ballot.

“Why are Jon Hansen and his right to life politicians so afraid of letting the people decide?” Weiland said in an emailed statement. “Could it be that they know that simple restoration of the reproductive rights women had before the politicians and judges took them away is what South Dakota wants?”

Weiland said Dakotans for Health already has more than 50,000 signatures on the abortion-rights ballot petitions.

Legislation would require Health Department to make video interpreting state’s abortion ban

California, Idaho, Utah and Washington allow for signers of petitions to withdraw their signatures. Florida was on the list, but in 2009, that state Supreme Court said the state’s signature revocation law was unconstitutional.

South Dakota risks taking on similar legal fees if the bill passes, said Sioux Falls Democratic Rep. Linda Duba.

“We have a personal responsibility to understand what we are signing,” Duba said. “And if we disagree with that signature at a later time, we also have the opportunity to vote no.”

Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Fort Pierre, said he has “no idea why the courts would say we want to not allow an additional right for voters, which is what this gives.” 

“This adds rights to the voter,” Mortenson said. “It adds voter discretion to come back and say, ‘I want my name withdrawn from that.’ And if there’s a challenge, that can be duly considered at that point.”

The Republican no votes came from Rep. David Kull, R-Brandon, and Rep. Ernie Otten, R-Tea. Otten echoed Duba’s argument about personal responsibility when signing petitions.

“What beast are we unleashing on something that I may really like?” he said. “I don’t know.”