Anti-abortion group is behind calls labeled a ‘scam’ by South Dakota election official

Callers are part of impending effort to challenge abortion-rights ballot measure

By Makenzie Huber

South Dakota Searchlight

Posted 5/15/24

Hundreds of phone calls this week that the South Dakota secretary of state has labeled a “scam” are originating from an anti-abortion group seeking to disqualify an abortion-rights ballot …

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Anti-abortion group is behind calls labeled a ‘scam’ by South Dakota election official

Callers are part of impending effort to challenge abortion-rights ballot measure


Hundreds of phone calls this week that the South Dakota secretary of state has labeled a “scam” are originating from an anti-abortion group seeking to disqualify an abortion-rights ballot measure. 

A petition was submitted last week to the Secretary of State’s Office with enough signatures to place the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, but the signatures must undergo a validation process. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem passed legislation allowing people to withdraw their signatures from petitions

Rachel Soulek, elections director with the Secretary of State’s Office, said the callers are capitalizing on the new law.

“This is the first time we are seeing this and it’s a result of the law change to allow individuals to remove their name from a ballot measure up till the point it is validated in our office,” Soulek told South Dakota Searchlight through email.

The office sent a news release Monday warning the public to be aware of scammers impersonating employees of the Secretary of State’s Office, “pushing the voters to challenge the abortion rights ballot measure petitions.”

“Citizens in South Dakota, by law, have the right to petition and people like these scammers are eroding public trust in the election process,” Secretary of State Monae Johnson said in the news release.

Johnson’s office asked state Attorney General Marty Jackley to look into the calls. Jackley said Tuesday that the Division of Criminal Investigation reviewed complaints about the calls, and also reviewed scripts used by callers, and found no indication of criminal wrongdoing.

Calls are for impending court challenge

The calls are associated with a new South Dakota Petition Integrity political action committee, registered Monday by Dell Rapids Republican state Rep. Jon Hansen. The group is affiliated with the Life Defense Fund ballot question committee, which Hansen co-chairs.

Callers are targeting over 700 South Dakotans who signed the petition and were randomly selected as a sample to validate the petition signatures by the Secretary of State’s Office. 

The office uses samples to estimate whether enough of the signatures on a petition are from registered voters, rather than examining every signature. The abortion petition, a proposed state constitutional amendment, needed 35,017 signatures and was submitted with about 55,000.

Hansen said his volunteers are not impersonating state employees. He said they’re clearly stating that they are volunteers with the committee and disclosing how they received the person’s name.

The callers are independently verifying the signatures, Hansen said, and asking signers whether petition circulators followed applicable laws and whether signers were misled into signing the petition. Hansen has alleged some 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.

The information collected through the phone calls will be used as evidence when opponents of the ballot measure challenge the validity of the signatures in court.

“We don’t intimidate a single person. Our mission is not to intimidate — our mission is to educate,” Hansen told South Dakota Searchlight.

Hansen obtained the sample list through a public records request. Rick Weiland, who is leading the abortion-rights ballot initiative, also obtained the sample list from the office. The sample list is prepared within five days of the signatures being submitted. 

Information or harassment?

Hansen was a prime sponsor of the petition signature withdrawal bill that passed the Legislature earlier this year with an emergency clause, ensuring that the law went into effect immediately. He said callers are informing signers they can remove their signatures if they were misled or have changed their mind.

“I would encourage anybody who signed that abortion petition to take their name off of it,” Hansen said. “Ever since this law was passed and went into effect, I’ve been encouraging people to take their name off the petition, but it’s not coercive. It’s not intimidation.”

Hansen said the phone calls are not harassment under state law.

“If anybody’s harassing anybody, it’s wrong and they shouldn’t do it. That’s certainly not what we’re doing — we’re just giving people the facts,” Hansen said. “We have laws already on the books against harassment, so if anybody is getting harassed those laws should be enforced.”

Weiland, with Dakotans for Health, the ballot question committee backing the abortion-rights measure, said the calls are acts of “desperation” in an effort to “suppress direct democracy.”

“It smells of voter intimidation and harassment,” Weiland added.

Some people who received phone calls from the committee told South Dakota Searchlight that the volunteers did not clearly indicate they were not affiliated with the state government. Some called several times, and some did not state their name or organization when leaving voicemails.

Adrienne Bosma signed the petition and volunteered with Dakotans for Health as a petition circulator. She said a caller from South Dakota Petition Integrity created the impression of being officially associated with the Secretary of State’s Office.

The volunteer asked questions, including whether Bosma knew the petition “allows for abortion up to birth.” Bosma said she challenged the volunteer’s language before the volunteer hung up the phone.

“I was so mad, I was physically shaking,” Bosma said. “If you’re calling people and harassing them when they’re exercising their First Amendment right, that’s over the line. That’s not OK.”

The ballot measure 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.

Law creates double standard, official says

Pamela McClure received a voicemail that stated the caller’s name and organization. The voicemail also said the group “received” her name from the South Dakota secretary of state.

“She said she was a volunteer of the group registered with the secretary of state and got my name from the secretary of state,” McClure said. “To me, that means she’s working with the Secretary of State’s Office.”

Amy Scott-Stoltz, president of the South Dakota League of Women Voters, was also contacted. Scott-Stoltz asked the volunteer several questions about the committee, its intent and mission, which she said went unanswered.

Scott-Stoltz said she was worried about this after the Legislature passed its signature withdrawal bill. She said the law’s lack of guidelines for signature withdrawal solicitors feels like a “double standard.”

“This just made it legal for them to call and have no restrictions on what they can or cannot say to me, where there are restrictions for petition circulators,” Scott-Stoltz said. “I wasn’t told who this committee was and couldn’t find any information on them at the time. Basically, the transparency wasn’t there.”

Scott-Stoltz said the law should be reversed or amended to hold signature withdrawal solicitors to the same standards as petition circulators.

Sioux Falls Democratic state Rep. Erin Healy spoke against the signature withdrawal bill during the legislative session. She told South Dakota Searchlight via text message she believes the law “derails the democratic process.”

“I would like to know if volunteers were required to take a training course prior to contacting South Dakota citizens, because if the Legislature is going to put guardrails in place for gathering signatures or removing signatures, the same should be done for volunteers representing committees that are calling and harassing citizens,” Healy said.

Petition signers should expect to receive another unsolicited phone call soon, this time from Weiland’s organization.

“It’s important because we know what the arguments are, what they’ve been saying all along about our amendment,” Weiland said. “We’ll be trying to address that in our communication to not believe what you’re being told and if you have any questions or concerns, give us a call. That’ll be the gist of what we’ll try to do.”