South Dakota boasts stringent voter ID laws, and a recent review of its legislative districts shows a “persistent Republican advantage” thanks to gerrymandering. The uneven playing field has helped South Dakota garner national headlines for its right-wing legislation, such as laws attacking the separation of church and state.
The state’s Republican lawmakers didn’t come up with these policies by themselves. National organizations have been actively coaching its lawmakers on how to best take advantage of redistricting and deflect claims that voting restrictions are discriminatory, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
One of the groups, WallBuilders, made a name for itself promoting legislation on issues such as displaying religious symbols on state property. But at WallBuilders’ 2018 ProFamily Legislative Network conference in Dallas, Texas, attendees were also taught about the legal validity of restrictive voting laws, according to documents we obtained describing the event.
The other group, ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, taught a South Dakota legislator how to best gerrymander state districts at its 2019 conference in Austin. According to documents describing the event, one of the attendees found that the conference “provided a lot of good and useful information on redistricting and ways to reduce the risk of lawsuits.”
Usually, the subject matter of such invitation-only conferences is shielded from public view. But both events were highlighted in a monthly “Legislator Update” newsletter produced by the South Dakota Legislative Research Council, a group of nonpartisan staffers who work in South Dakota’s state house. The publication is intended for South Dakota lawmakers, according to a description on the front page of each issue. We obtained copies of the newsletter using a public records request.
Such materials demonstrate how right-wing groups are working hand in hand with Republican lawmakers to strip voting rights and proper representation from the public, in order to safeguard these politicians’ elected positions and facilitate these organizations’ extremist goals.
WallBuilders’ Attack on Voting Rights
WallBuilders is an evangelical group that got its start publishing history books that claimed, falsely, that the founding fathers opposed the separation of church and state. The group was created in 1988 by David Barton, an author listed as one of Time’s most influential evangelicals. Barton has been described as a proponent of Christian nationalism, a political ideology that seeks to enshrine a fundamentalist version of Christianity in state and federal law.
In 1998, Barton expanded WallBuilders to launch the ProFamily Legislative Network, an advocacy group that holds a yearly conference for “conservative pro-family” state legislators. The group’s website lists “conservative fiscal policies,” “abortion,” and “public morality” as some of the issues it covers.
But the Legislator Update newsletters suggest the WallBuilders’ advocacy extends to counseling lawmakers on restricting voting rights.
According to one of the reports, South Dakota Republican state representative Sue Peterson attended the WallBuilders’ 2018 ProFamily Legislative Network conference in Dallas. And, as Peterson noted in the newsletter, her takeaway from the conference was that “the media gives the impression that laws passed to ensure safe and fair elections are discriminatory, but most all [sic] have held up to court challenges.”
WallBuilders did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Legal experts dispute the claim that courts are permissive about policies that restrict the right to vote. “That’s a big overstatement,” said Michael Li, senior council at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“Any number of laws, from Texas’s voter ID law to North Carolina’s aggressive omnibus elections law, have been struck down by courts and modified as a result,” Li said. “The Texas voter ID law is a great example. It was one of the most restrictive in the nation, but it became much fairer as a result of litigation. States sometimes win cases or win on appeal. But these cases show they don’t have carte blanche to do whatever they want.”
But for those who follow right-wing groups like WallBuilders, their increased focus on voting rights is cause for concern. “Conservative evangelicals have a vision for America,” said Rob Boston, a senior adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Increasingly, they are advocating voter suppression as a way to keep Republicans in power, even if most Americans don’t support them.”
ALEC and Gerrymandering
The Legislator Update newsletters show that at least two South Dakota lawmakers attended ALEC conferences in 2018 and 2019, where part of the focus was on limiting lawsuits in the wake of implementing controversial redistricting plans.
In 2019, Republican Jim Stalzer, then a state senator and currently a state representative, attended ALEC’s conference in Austin, Texas. According to the Legislative Update newsletter, “Senator Stalzer also mentioned the meeting provided a lot of good and useful information on redistricting and ways to reduce the risk of lawsuits.”
“The primary things that it covered were the types of things one should do, i.e., following county lines, city boundaries, and natural political boundaries,” Stalzer told us when asked about the ALEC conference. “South Dakota was one of the few states that didn’t get sued last time because we did try to use natural boundaries.”
ALEC could not be reached for comment.
According to an AP analysis, South Dakota’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered to provide an ongoing benefit to Republican candidates.” (Gerrymandering occurs when the boundaries of legislative districts are drawn to give one party an advantage in elections.)
With the South Dakota legislature set to redraw its districts this year, there is concern that the process may unfairly advantage Republican politicians once again.
“As a legislator who served in a gerrymandered district, I think it’s important to make sure politics and partisanship are not involved in the redistricting process,” said Dan Ahlers, a former Democratic member of South Dakota’s state house and a onetime nominee for Congress. “It has also been used to silence minorities in South Dakota. If you look at the northeast side of Rapid City, there’s a predominantly Native American neighborhood that was chopped up into three districts. That wasn’t done by accident.”
South Dakota’s legislative districts are drawn by a partisan commission. Six of the seven members of the Senate’s 2021 redistricting committee are Republican, as are seven of the eight members of the House’s 2021 redistricting committee.
South Dakota Republican state senator Jim Bolin, a member of the redistricting committee, told us that the South Dakota constitution required legislators to set the district boundaries themselves.
“It’s like any committee in the legislature — it’s based on partisan balance,” said Bolin. “There are only three Democrats in the South Dakota Senate.”
“Here’s the thing about South Dakota,” said Bolin. “Some states are becoming more liberal; South Dakota is becoming more conservative. There are people moving here because they want to be in a red state.”
But many people believe the state’s redistricting efforts shouldn’t be left up to partisan committees.
“The constitution [of South Dakota] currently allows legislators to draw their own districts,” said Amy Scott-Stoltz, the coalition director of Drawn Together SD, an anti-gerrymandering group. “We believe this is a conflict of interest. Politicians should not choose their voters; voters should choose their elected officials.”
The South Dakota legislature began the redistricting process earlier this month, ahead of a December deadline. Drawn Together SD is working on a ballot initiative that would be on the ballot in 2022, which would require the districts to be redrawn by a nonpartisan commission, Scott-Stoltz told us. But the organization faces a steep uphill battle against national groups like ALEC.
At ALEC’s 2019 conference, those who attended were told to treat redistricting as a “political adult blood sport,” according to a recording of the conference obtained by Slate. Legislators were advised to destroy evidence and to include provisions to allow their legislatures to defend their redistricting plans in court, should their states’ attorneys general decline to take the case.
Keeping Their Bedfellows in Power
The importance of voting restrictions to right-wing groups has only grown in recent years. Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, WallBuilders’ founder, Barton, was one of many right-wing leaders who promoted the lie that the election had yet to be decided. For its part, ALEC teamed up with other right-wing groups to ramp up its efforts to push voting restrictions in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Organizations like ALEC and WallBuilders work to pass laws by providing legal templates and other material to state legislators who often work part time or who don’t have their own staff.
“ALEC is a clearinghouse of legislative ideas and bills that are distributed to legislators in multiple states,” said David Daley, a senior fellow for FairVote. “When you see the same type of legislation burbling up across multiple states, ALEC is often the brains behind it.”
The ALEC conferences South Dakota state lawmakers attended, for example, weren’t just focused on redistricting. At ALEC’s 2018 annual meeting in New Orleans, legislators discussed issues ranging from “electronic recycling [and] school safety” to culture war issues such as the “freedom to associate in [an] age of intimidation,” according to one of the Legislator Update newsletters. And at the 2019 conference in Austin, legislators discussed topics like “the current state of drug abuse, national popular vote, [and] local government lawsuits against the states,” according to the newsletter.
WallBuilders is another group that helps lawmakers pass bills to further their conservative agenda.
As noted in one of the South Dakota newsletters, Republican state senator Phil Jensen also attended the organization’s 2018 ProFamily Legislative Network conference in Dallas, describing the event as the “most relevant and informative legislative conference he has attended.” Part of the appeal for Jenson: two “new ideas” for legislation to introduce in South Dakota — a law to mandate prominently posting the slogan “In God We Trust” on state buildings, and a resolution declaring an annual Christian week.
After attending the conference, Jensen sponsored legislation to put the slogan “In God We Trust” in state buildings such as schools in South Dakota. Although the legislation was criticized as violating the first amendment, it passed in 2019.
By promoting policies that restrict the right to vote, groups like ALEC and WallBuilders can shield legislators from the political consequences of passing such extreme policies.
“When conservatives try and discount the importance of these maps,” said Daley, “they’re saying something else behind closed doors. They are impressing upon conservative lawmakers that there is nothing they do that is more important than drawing maps and devising laws about the kind of access to the vote people have.”