Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories on a South Dakota News Watch and Chiesman Center for Democracy poll that surveyed 500 South Dakotans on a variety of political topics. Stories will be published weekly through mid-January.
The battle over a proposed 2024 ballot amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in the South Dakota Constitution is not currently getting majority support from either side, according to a statewide poll sponsored by South Dakota News Watch.
The survey of 500 registered voters showed that 45.6% of respondents support the proposed measure, which would supersede a state abortion ban enacted when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. That’s more than the 43.6% who said they oppose the change, but it’s within the poll’s margin of error of 4.5%.
“It’s certainly competitive,” said Rick Weiland, former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and executive director of Dakotans for Health, a grassroots organization gathering signatures to put the amendment on the November 2024 ballot.
“But I think once South Dakota voters understand that the trigger law they’re living under is one of the most extreme measures in the entire country, these numbers will grow exponentially.”
Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, who serves as vice president of South Dakota Right to Life and co-chair of the Sioux Falls-based Life Defense Fund, viewed the results as a positive for the anti-abortion movement.
He emphasized the fact that women surveyed in the poll oppose the measure 50.2% to 40.6%, with 9.2% undecided. A majority of men, 51%, said they support the proposed amendment; 36.9% oppose it and 12% are undecided.
“This poll makes clear that the majority of South Dakotans do not support the extreme abortion amendment, including the majority of women who have decided to oppose it,” Hansen said in an emailed statement to News Watch.
Opponents call abortion measure 'extreme'
Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy conducted the survey Nov. 27-29. Those interviewed were selected randomly from a telephone-matched state voter registration list that included both land line and cellphone numbers. Respondents were representative of all South Dakota counties, ages, gender and political parties. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5%. South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota sponsored the poll.
The poll question summarized the amendment this way: “During the first trimester it would prevent the state from regulating abortions. During the second trimester, the state could regulate the abortion decision, but any regulation must be reasonably related to the physical health of the mother. During the third trimester, abortion could be prohibited except if it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman, according to her physician.”
Hansen has criticized the wording of the proposed amendment, saying it’s “far more extreme than Roe v. Wade itself.”
Weiland and others pushed back on that statement by saying the amendment uses the same trimester framework as Roe, the landmark 1973 ruling in which the Supreme Court held that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion prior to the viability of the fetus.
South Dakota under trigger law from 2005
South Dakota is currently under a 2005 state trigger law activated when the Supreme Court left it up to states to determine reproductive rights with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The law makes it a Class 6 felony for anyone “who administers to any pregnant female or prescribes or procures for any pregnant female” a means for an abortion, except to save the life of the mother. South Dakota is one of 14 states whose abortion law does not include exceptions for rape and incest.
Some key takeaways from the News Watch poll:
Party lines: Democrats surveyed support the proposed amendment by a margin of 54.9% to 32.8%, with 12.3% undecided. Republicans oppose by a margin of 52.4% to 36.3%, with 11.3% undecided. For Independents/others, it was 54.6% support, 36.9% oppose, 8.5% undecided.
Age difference: The highest support of the proposed amendment (48.5%) came from the 65-plus age group, while the lowest (43.2%) came from the 50-64 age group. Support from other age groups was 47.6% from 18-34 year-olds and 45.3% from 35-49 year-olds.
Geographical splits: The most support of the proposed amendment came from East River/North (54.5%), followed by Sioux Falls Metro (46.7%), West River (41.3%) and East River/South (40.0%).
Putting abortion on the ballot
The proposed amendment reflects a national trend of progressive groups using the ballot initiative process to gain ground on abortion rights since the Supreme Court rolled back federal protections by overturning Roe v. Wade.
Election wins have come in conservative states such as Ohio, where 57% of voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2023 that ensured access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care.
In Kansas, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 2022 constitutional amendment that would have allowed the Republican-led Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban abortion outright, with 59% voting against the amendment.
Petition efforts are also under way in states such as Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Nebraska to try to put the issue before voters in 2024, a presidential election year in which high turnout is expected.
Dakotans for Health needs to collect a minimum of 35,017 signatures to place the abortion constitutional amendment on the South Dakota ballot. Weiland told News Watch that his group has collected “close to 50,000” signatures as it pursues a goal of 60,000 or more to ensure that ballot access isn’t foiled by invalidated signatures or other technicalities. The deadline to submit signatures is May 7, 2024.
“First you have to make sure that you’ve got something to vote on, which is what we’ve been focused on,” said Weiland. “Then there’s a campaign to educate people in South Dakota about this issue. And we’ve already had conversations with tens of thousands of voters since we started actively circulating our petitions. You know, that’s 50,000 votes in the bank.”
Campaign ignites both sides
The petition drive has galvanized an equally passionate opposition movement, with anti-abortion groups wary of allowing the issue to reach the ballot. South Dakotans rejected near-total abortion bans by statewide vote in 2006 and 2008.
Life Defense Fund demonstrators, as part of their “Decline to Sign” campaign, have occasionally clashed with Dakotans for Health volunteers. Attorney General Marty Jackley sent a letter to Dakotas for Health on Oct. 31 saying that he had received “video and photographic evidence” purporting to show unattended petitions, a violation of state law, and people signing the same petition twice.
Weiland said his group trains petition circulators to follow state law and has addressed any irregularities. He said the larger issue is the harassment his volunteers have experienced at the hands of Life Defense Fund demonstrators.
Dakotans for Health successfully challenged a policy passed by the Minnehaha County Commission that imposed what a judge determined were unreasonable restrictions for petition circulators at the county administration building. A settlement was reached that removed references to a designated area for petition circulators and no longer required circulators to check in with the county auditor before engaging in political activity.
Hansen said his group is committed to campaigning against the measure because of the high-stakes nature of the abortion issue.
“Life Defense Fund works everyday to inform South Dakotans about the actual impacts of the abortion amendment, including legalizing late-term abortion and endangering women by banning safety regulations for most abortions,” Hansen told News Watch. “One thing is clear: the more people learn about the actual impacts of the extreme Abortion Amendment, the more they reject it.”
Poll in 2022: Increase abortion access
In July 2022, News Watch sponsored a Mason-Dixon poll that showed statewide support for making changes to South Dakota’s abortion laws.
That survey showed that a majority (57%) of respondents supported allowing legal access to abortion medications in the state.
More than three-fourths (76%) of those polled support allowing legal abortion in cases of rape and incest, an exception not currently allowed under South Dakota.
The poll also showed that nearly 8 in 10 respondents (79%) oppose criminal penalties for anyone who helps a South Dakota resident obtain an abortion where it is legal, such as in a neighboring state.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) said they supported having a statewide referendum to determine South Dakota’s laws regarding reproductive rights.
“We're offering up something that the people of the United States and South Dakota had for 50 years and was taken away by the Supreme Court,” Weiland said. “When given a choice, we feel like people will overwhelmingly support freedom – more specifically, reproductive freedom in the context of Roe vs. Wade.”