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South Dakota Secretary of State
South Dakota Secretary of State Monae Johnson applauds Gov. Kristi Noem before Noem delivered her 2023 budget address on the House floor of the Capitol building on Dec. 5, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Sec. of State criticized for calling phone calls a scam

PIERRE, S.D. – A top Republican state official has run afoul of anti-abortion groups after labeling their recent phone operation a “scam.”

The controversy started May 13 with a news release from South Dakota Secretary of State Monae Johnson, who oversees elections. The release warned about phone calls from people who allegedly claimed to work for her office.

The callers were contacting people who had signed a petition to place an abortion-rights measure on the ballot in the Nov. 5 election. The phone operation was part of a coordinated attempt to gather information for a legal challenge to the petition, and to inform people that they could withdraw their signatures.

Johnson’s news release said callers were “impersonating” her staff and “trying to pressure voters into asking that their name be removed” from the petitions. The release included a quote from Johnson: “Citizens in South Dakota, by law, have the right to petition and people like these scammers are eroding public trust in the election process,” she said.

Johnson asked Attorney General Marty Jackley, a fellow Republican, to look into the calls. He announced one day later that no laws were broken, and subsequently told South Dakota Searchlight that callers did not impersonate anyone or claim to work for the secretary of state.

‘Irreversible damage’ alleged

The episode angered state Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, who was involved in the phone operation. He is the vice president of the board of South Dakota Right to Life and co-chair of the Life Defense Fund.

“By labeling our lawful activity as a scam, Secretary of State Johnson has done significant and irreversible damage to the pro-life movement in South Dakota,” Hansen said in a statement to Searchlight.

Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, speaks on the House floor on Feb. 6, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
 Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, speaks on the state House floor on Feb. 6, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight) 

Johnson did not answer Searchlight’s request for a response to Hansen’s comment. She was elected in November 2022 after convincing delegates to the state Republican convention earlier that year to nominate her instead of the incumbent secretary of state, Steve Barnett.

Johnson’s news release labeling anti-abortion activists’ efforts a scam could be a problem for her political future if it proves to be a “burr in the pro-life movement’s saddle,” said Lisa Hager, associate professor of political science at South Dakota State University.

The ballot measure would amend the state constitution to include abortion rights. Hager said if a legal challenge removes the measure from the ballot, or if it makes the ballot and voters reject it, Johnson’s news release could end up being “a blip on the radar.”

“A lot of what happens with this probably hinges on what happens with the abortion amendment,” Hager said.

Jackley explains findings

Jackley said in an interview with South Dakota Searchlight that two state laws are relevant to the phone-call controversy.

One law says falsely pretending to be a public official is a crime. Although the Secretary of State’s Office said callers were “impersonating” the office’s staff, Jackley said that wasn’t the case. He said callers read a script identifying themselves as volunteers for a group that obtained information about petition signers from the Secretary of State’s Office.

“Nobody called and said they were with the secretary of state,” Jackley said. “There was no impersonation.”

A script used by callers contacting signers of an abortion-rights petition. (Courtesy of Rep. John Hansen)
 A script used by callers contacting signers of an abortion-rights petition.
(Courtesy of Rep. John Hansen

He said some people may have mistakenly thought the callers were public officials, but there is no evidence the callers deliberately created that impression.

“Could they have been reading the script too fast?” Jackley said. “Possibly.”

Hansen provided South Dakota Searchlight a copy of the script used by callers. It said, in part, “I’m a local volunteer with the South Dakota Petition Integrity Committee which is an organization registered with the South Dakota Secretary of State and staffed by local volunteers.”

South Dakota Petition Integrity is a political action committee that Hansen registered on May 13, the same day Johnson issued her press release.

Another state law says it’s a crime to impersonate a public official while injuring or defrauding someone.

“We have to prove both,” Jackley said, adding that no impersonation occurred, and there is no evidence anyone was tricked into removing their signature, nor that any other legal damages occurred.

Challenge to petition expected

Dakotans for Health is the ballot question committee supporting the abortion-rights amendment. The group’s lawyer, Jim Leach, declined to comment on the lack of criminal charges against the phone operation because “we’re about to be sued by Life Defense Fund.”

Life Defense Fund, a ballot question committee organized to defeat the ballot measure, has already said it will challenge the validity of petition signatures. People associated with the committee have alleged some petition signers were duped into believing they were signing a petition to repeal the state sales tax on groceries, when they were actually signing the abortion-rights petition. Dakotans for Health circulated both petitions.

Republican legislators laid part of the groundwork for a legal challenge by passing a bill in March allowing people to withdraw their petition signatures.

Hansen, who was a prime sponsor of that bill, said the phone campaign was part of the “independent research into the validity of the petition signatures” that “is a requirement upon us to bring our challenge under South Dakota law.”

The Secretary of State’s Office has since announced that the abortion-rights petition had enough signatures from registered voters to be placed on the ballot. That triggered a 30-day window in which opponents can challenge the petition’s validity. Hansen and his Life Defense Fund co-chair said they’ll file a challenge “at the appropriate time.”

Abortions are currently banned in the state, except to “preserve the life of the pregnant female.” The ballot measure, if approved by voters, would legalize abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy but allow the state to impose limited regulations in the second trimester and a ban in the third trimester, with exceptions for the life and health of the mother.

Dakotans for Health Chairman Rick Weiland described the phone campaign as unethical.

“We knew all this would happen once that signature removal bill passed,” Weiland said. “They did and continue to misrepresent the ballot measure.”

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