If Voters Hate Corruption, Why Do Elected Politicians Resist Anticorruption Reform? Lessons from South Dakota

If U.S. voters dislike corruption so much, why don’t U.S. politicians see anticorruption as a winning issue—or at the very least feel more pressure to act aggressively against the corruption that voters claim to hate? This question, which has been explored on this blog before, is interesting to consider in the context of recent developments in South Dakota. South Dakota is considered to be one of the most corrupt states in the U.S., and in recent years has suffered through several major public corruption scandals, including massive misappropriations after the state privatized its EB-5 visa program, and the theft of over a million dollars earmarked for scholastic grants for the state’s American Indian population. In the past, although some Democratic state representatives had introduced bills to crack down on corruption, these measures failed in largely party-line votes in South Dakota’s Republican-dominated state legislature. Yet South Dakota, like many U.S. states, has a ballot initiative process that empowers voters to approve new laws by popular referendum. Last November, South Dakota voters used this process to approve Initiated Measure 22 (IM-22), also known as the “South Dakota Anti-Corruption Act.” While IM-22, despite its title, is not a direct anticorruption bill—its focus was on reforming campaign finance and lobbying—the message from the South Dakota voters was clear: they saw corruption as a problem and wanted to take measures to combat it.

Yet after the referendum passed, Republican lawmakers immediately took steps to halt the new rule. Within two weeks, 25 Republican South Dakota lawmakers brought suit against the state, arguing that the ethics commission created by the referendum violated the state’s constitution, and they succeeded in getting a temporary injunction against the new rules. Ultimately, the South Dakota State Senate struck down the law, using a provision of state law that allows the state legislature that repeals a referendum. Thus elected stood in direct opposition to an attempt to combat corruption enacted through a popular democratic initiative. Moreover, events in South Dakota reveal that some of the more conventional explanations that have been offered—including by previous analyses on this blog—are at best incomplete.

  • One common explanation for U.S. politicians’ relative lack of interest in corruption (or associated issues like campaign finance and lobbying reform) is that, no matter what voters tell pollsters, anticorruption is a losing issue in American politics. After all, campaigns entirely focused on anticorruption, such as Larry Lessig’s presidential run or Zephyr Teachout’s campaigns, first for governor of New York and then for an open seat in the U.S. Congress, have failed to gain traction. A closely related hypothesis is that although the idea of anticorruption may be popular in the abstract, anticorruption as a campaign issue is often too nebulous, and end up overshadowed by more concrete concerns such as unemployment and economic security. Yet these arguments, whatever their relevance elsewhere, doesn’t really explain what happened in South Dakota. After all, IM-22 was a concrete set of policies, and it got the support of over 51% of South Dakota voters (with the yes votes exceeding the no votes by more than 10,000 ballots). Not only was IM-22 passed, it passed in the face of powerful lobbying efforts coordinated by both in-state and national groups, including financial juggernauts like the Koch Brothers. In some instances at least, anticorruption concerns are far from a losing issue.
  • An alternative suggestion for why an anticorruption often doesn’t get political traction is that the media disregards anticorruption concerns, preventing politicians from capitalizing on voters’ desire to fight corruption. Once again, while this may be true in other cases, it doesn’t explain events in South Dakota. After all, The Argus Leader, South Dakota’s largest newspaper, published dozens of articles regarding the issue, and substantial media campaigns on both sides kept the media’s focus on the issue. Thus, South Dakota demonstrates that sometimes, even when the media pays attention to a popular anticorruption initiative, politicians still resist the effort.

Unfortunately, it seems that resistance by American politicians to anticorruption measures is also driven by a more dangerous force: political self-interest. While some in South Dakota highlighted potential constitutional issues with the referendum, state legislators made it clear that their primary concern with the new law was how it would negatively impact South Dakota’s state politicians—including the legislators themselves. After the passage of IM-22, the Senate Majority leader in South Dakota, Blake Curd, stated plainly that IM-22 would turn all South Dakota politicians into “de-facto criminals,” because many of them rely on the problematic flow of money from lobbyists. This problem may stem in part from the low compensation for state elected officials. That issue ought to be addressed. Nonetheless, it is notable that the politicians in South Dakota reckoned that they would be better off repealing a popular law rather than change their own patterns and habits to accommodate the new anticorruption measure, or to change other aspects of the law to make compliance more palatable.

This self-interest is one of the deeper issues preventing American politicians from aligning their own campaigns with the American public’s desire for anticorruption measures. The benefit gained from capturing that political force clearly does not outweigh the harm to these politicians’ regular means of doing business. When politicians are willing to combat a direct referendum to maintain a questionable status quo, they reveal just how difficult it may be to push forward anticorruption measures in the US, especially at a local level.

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