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No reason to let the elected folks in Pierre have all the fun — let regular citizens express their democratic power in an Online People's Assembly. Photo by Katie Hunhoff.
No reason to let the elected folks in Pierre have all the fun — let regular citizens express their democratic power in an Online People's Assembly. Photo by Katie Hunhoff.

The Online People's Assembly

Jan 9, 2013

Darn the Republic; full Democracy speed ahead!

Betty Otten, the new chair of the Lincoln County GOP, likes to shout that we are a Republic not a Democracy! That slogan is not only irrelevant to practical political discourse but ignorant of South Dakota's great tradition of democracy.

Our fair state created the statewide initiative and referendum. We adopted those democratic reforms in 1898, thanks in part to the vigorous organizing efforts of Brown County newspaperman Walter E. Kidd. His newspaper, the Dakota Ruralist, ran on its front page the motto "Socialism in Our Time"... but never mind that.

The presumption of people who shout "Republic, not a Democracy!" is that regular folks aren't smart enough to govern themselves... which is strange, since the only RNAD-shouters I know are conservatives. The preference for Republic is also grounded in the idea that you just can't get every citizen into the House chamber for a serious conversation about public policy, so we must trust that job to a handful of elected representatives. But who's to say that several dozen legislators rushing through a few hundred bills between free meals handed out by lobbying groups in Pierre are any more capable of making rational governing decisions than hundreds of thousands of citizens with access to the Internet?

Maybe the time has come to update our initiative and referendum statutes to reflect the democratic and technological capabilities of the 21st century. Maybe the time has come to express the constitutionally designated legislative power of the people in the Online People's Assembly. Here's my plan:

  1. Abolish the South Dakota House of Representatives.
  2. Replace its authority with an Online People's Assembly, consisting of all South Dakota registered voters.
  3. Continue to run bills normally through the South Dakota Senate.
  4. All bills passing Senate committee and floor votes are posted to a special wiki on the Legislature's website for a 31-day period.
  5. South Dakota citizens have two weeks to comment on Senate-approved bills.
  6. Any Senate-approved bill receiving fewer than 16,000 unique views go to the Governor for signature or veto.
  7. Any Senate-approved bill receiving more than 16,000 unique views is open for public amendment and debate.
  8. Citizens may submit and vote on amendments to such pending legislation via the wiki.
  9. Approved amendments are locked in at the end of Day 24 of the posting period.
  10. Citizens vote online for the final form of the bill from Day 25 to Day 31.
  11. Bills receiving a majority vote from wiki participants are considered approved by the Online People's Assembly.
  12. Amended bills go to back to the Senate for a straight up-or-down reconciliation vote.
  13. The President Pro-Tem of the Senate must introduce all citizen-approved bills by shouting, "OPA!"
  14. The Governor may veto bills approved by the Online People's Assembly.

We can also include a mechanism for the Online People's Assembly to introduce bills during the first month of the legislative session. It will take some thinking, but it's nothing that a sensible electorate of over 500,000 registered voters can't figure out.

We are a Republic, but South Dakota also has a great tradition of Democracy. Our tradition of initiative and referendum, as well as the increasing connection brought by modern telecommunications, show that we have the capacity to govern ourselves more directly than our Founders may have dreamed possible. If you like initiative and referendum (and if you're a South Dakotan, you are bound by tradition to like them), you'll love the Online People's Assembly!


Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.



12:20 pm - Wed, January 9 2013
Laura said:
I like item #13 especially — use of the Greek exclamation would surely encourage impromptu dances celebrating the political process, and I am 100% in favor of that. Thanks for another great column, Cory!
03:11 pm - Wed, January 9 2013
Democracy is worth a little celebration, but I would resist the urge to break plates in the Capitol.
09:06 am - Thu, January 10 2013
Only problem with that would be that not everyone has the Internet nor access to the Internet, nor the skills to navigate a wiki.

Just saying.
07:56 am - Sun, January 20 2013
True! I continue to wrestle with the digital divide. That's one more reason we need to maintain strong public schools and libraries that make their Internet resources freely available to their community members. We also need to push the cell phone providers to build more robust and reliable service for even our most remote areas.

That said, with widespread adoption of the Web and smart phones, we have the most connected society ever. Even with persistent inequalities in access, more people would have access to the OPA than currently do to the Legislative process in Pierre, which conducts business during working days during the coldest, hardest traveling months of the year. OPA isn't perfect, but it would provide for a net increase in citizen participation.

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