- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Activists are working to block a new bundle of election law changes that opponents say would discourage candidates from running for office and overly burden independent political hopefuls from getting on the ballot.

The state Democratic Party and other activists are campaigning to stop the law, which was passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature this session, by referring it to the voters for their review. Opponents must secure 13,871 signatures from registered South Dakota voters and submit them to the secretary of state’s office by June 29 to put the issue on the 2016 ballot.

Liberal activist Cory Heidelberger filed a petition in late March to begin such a campaign. Heidelberger said he is working with a politically diverse group of South Dakota activists to push back against the legislation, which Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed on March 20.

“Voters are having their rights taken away,” Heidelberger said.

But Republican Sen. Ernie Otten, who worked on the legislation, said that the law changes make sure political parties are treated equally. He said the law is a “good compromise” and could help smaller political parties get out their message and grow.

“We were pretty sure that it was going to get challenged by them, and I guess the voters can have their say in it,” Otten said.

The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. Securing the signatures would put the changes on hold until the 2016 election.

The law was initially put forward to allow citizens more time to challenge a candidates’ nominating petition by moving up the candidate filing deadlines. But the Legislature added pieces that opponents say would make it harder for independent candidates to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. Lawmakers reduced the number of signatures that would be necessary for an independent to collect, but limited the pool of potential signatories by blocking registered Republicans or Democrats from providing them.

“Previously, independent candidates could get signatures from the entire voter pool,” said Pam Peak, executive director of the Centrist Project, which works to elect independent U.S. senators. “Now, they’re restricted to what (the law) defines as independent voters.”

The South Dakota Democratic Party is concerned that the earlier candidate filing deadlines will make it harder to get candidates to run.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said the bill also “creates more red tape for candidate withdrawal and replacement” and said the existing law worked well.

“We don’t understand the Republican insistence that they need to fix something that isn’t broken,” Tornberg said. “They already have a supermajority in the Legislature, so I can’t understand why they think they have to put more barriers in front of the election process.”

Otten said it’s important to give citizens enough time to challenge nominating petitions. He also said the new petitioning period is balanced because it includes the winter holidays, which means more people will be at home when candidates are knocking on doors.

“I think that we came up with something pretty middle of the road,” he said.

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