The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is how far Republicans will go to subvert the will of the voters

A man fills out a ballot at a voting station in Mt. Gilead, N.C., on May 17. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Just how far will Republicans go to thwart the will of the people?

South Dakota is one of only 12 states where, a dozen years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are still blocking the expansion of Medicaid. But Medicaid expansion is popular among South Dakotans, who are on the cusp of approving it this year by a ballot initiative, the same tool used to overcome Republican lawmakers’ obstruction in six other states.

So Republicans in the South Dakota legislature came up with a novel solution: They are moving to enshrine minority rule in the state constitution. Worse, they are attempting to force through their constitutional amendment imposing minority rule by holding the vote on a day when only hardcore Republican voters are expected at the polls.

South Dakota’s GOP-controlled legislature put its Medicaid-expansion-killing amendment on the ballot for June 7, the state’s primary Election Day. Because almost all the contested primaries next week are on the Republican side, this essentially stacks the vote so that Democrats and independent voters won’t cast ballots. The main financial backer of this assault on democracy? The GOP megadonor Koch family’s Americans for Prosperity.

The amendment itself would require a 60 percent supermajority to enact any ballot initiative that would raise taxes by more than $10 million over five years — and it leaves it up to legislators to determine what any initiative’s cost would be. Republican sponsors of the legislation, including state Senate President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck, haven’t tried to hide that they hope the amendment will thwart Medicaid expansion, which will be put to voters for approval in November’s general election.

Follow Dana Milbank's opinionsFollow

So next Tuesday, a simple majority of (mostly) Republican primary voters will have the power to end majority rule in South Dakota, in perpetuity. The Senate Democratic leader, Troy Heinert, called it “a systematic assault on the will of the people.” Even some Republican opponents of Medicaid expansion balked at the sleight of hand; “in bad faith” and “unfair to most people who are following the laws” is how state Sen. Michael Diedrich described the primary-day vote.

South Dakota pioneered the use of ballot initiatives more than 100 years ago, during the Progressive Era. Now, in the Trump era, Republicans, not content with their efforts to hobble representative democracy, are also attempting to cancel direct democracy.

The Republican legislature in Pierre has already repealed a voter-approved initiative creating an ethics commission, and the GOP-dominated state Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved initiative legalizing marijuana. Legislators enacted various obstacles to ballot initiatives, imposing new restrictions on topics and even the font size of petitions. South Dakota voters rejected a previous attempt by the legislature to require a supermajority for ballot initiatives — but that vote was held properly, during a general election.

This isn’t just a South Dakota problem. Conservatives for years used ballot initiatives to their advantage to fight immigration and taxes. Now, however, red states all over are finding that even Republican voters support ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, reforming elections and legalizing marijuana. In many of these states, Republicans already enjoy one-party rule; ballot initiatives are the last surviving vehicle for opposing ideas.

The liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center tallied 146 attempts last year to change (mostly to restrict) the ballot-initiative process, including 24 that were enacted; it is tracking an additional 87 such bills across 13 states this year, bills that impose new signature requirements, restrict referendum topics and the like. The GOP legislatures in Missouri, Arizona and Florida have been particularly aggressive in curtailing their constituents’ right to self-governance.

In South Dakota, the Koch-funded attack on democracy faces pushback from a broad coalition of chambers of commerce and health-care providers, insurers and advocates, farmers and educators. Proponents of expanding Medicaid to the working poor are confident that South Dakotans would approve the expansion (and accompanying federal subsidies) if given an up-or-down vote. A poll sponsored by pro-expansion AARP in December found that two-thirds of voters age 50 and over said they were likely to support expansion.

But voters might not get that up-or-down vote. “It’s a power grab by politicians,” says David Benson, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network official overseeing South Dakota, “done in a way that a minority of voters could dictate how our constitution changes.” He points out that Republicans don’t let independents vote in their primaries — yet another deterrent to high turnout for next week’s vote.

Voters might yet reject the power grab next week, or courts might invalidate it later. But this much is clear: The Republicans’ grinding assault on democracy — in all its forms — will continue.