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.

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