As a lifelong Republican and casual observer of South Dakota politics, I have had a nagging feeling for several years that something just wasn’t working right. Then I heard reports from this year’s Republican convention and it started to sink in.
Our 20th century election system has enabled a small right-wing faction to have outsized influence on political dialogue in our state. Recognizing this, I think we would be wise to modernize our election system to include more South Dakotans in the process.
The Republican convention was reportedly a fiasco
The reports from the Republican state convention this summer are concerning. A small, but effective right-wing element in the party got out their vote and nearly disrupted the plans of the complacent majority.
The incumbent Secretary of State was surprisingly dumped for spurious reasons. The incumbent lieutenant governor almost suffered the same fate, but for some last-minute political maneuvering. And Marty Jackley’s bid to return to the office of Attorney General was also nearly sidetracked.
I imagine some conservative Republican office holders (Noem and Thune) are scratching their heads wondering how they suddenly became “liberals.”
Our election system was established in a different time, with different realities
Decades ago, the Republican and Democratic parties were all that mattered in South Dakota politics. Both could field electable candidates. While the Republicans were mostly dominant, the Democrats were certainly relevant with leaders like Daschle, Johnson, Herseth-Sandlin and McGovern. Independents and third parties were not so important.
Over time, the two parties put themselves in charge of the state’s election system, to the exclusion of all others. That may have made sense at the time since they could keep an eye on each other and balance things out.
Eventually, the Democratic party’s influence in the state waned when national Democrats moved left. As the party’s voter numbers in the state decreased, the number of independent voters increased.
Independent voter numbers on the rise
Today 49% of registered voters in South Dakota have chosen to be labelled as Republicans. That number is probably inflated by the fact that non-Republicans are motivated to register as Republican if they want their vote to make a difference. The sagest political advice you can get in South Dakota these days is “regardless of your political philosophy, you might as well register as a Republican so you can have a meaningful voice in elections.” Some are willing to do that, while others understandably refuse to compromise themselves.
26% of South Dakota voters have bravely registered as Democrats, knowing that means they can make little difference in selecting our elected representatives. And 24% have chosen to affiliate with neither party. That number appears to be low based on national trends.
According to recent Gallup polling, 43% of voters in the US now consider themselves independent. Young people especially are opting out of the choice between the two political parties they find objectionable.
Independent voters are second class citizens in South Dakota
While the political landscape shifted in South Dakota, the mechanics of our elections did not. But no one seems to be challenging that. Most South Dakotans accept the legacy election system as is. It is familiar. We know how it works. And we know that we end up with Republican winners either way. But we should at least understand its shortcomings and what they might be costing us.
The two parties control South Dakota’s election processes. The State Board of Elections runs the state’s elections. Six of the seven board members are appointed by elected officials from the two parties. None are appointed by other parties or by independent voters in the state.
On a more local level, county precinct superintendents and their assistants play a big role in South Dakota’s elections. County auditors appoint them from lists submitted by the two parties. The state’s independent voters are left out of the process.
Independents are even discriminated against if they want to run for office. The signature requirements for their nominating petitions for some offices are much greater than for party candidates. This is not fair. (I wonder if it would survive a court challenge.)
Independent voters are excluded from the primaries
Political parties have decided that they should be able to exclude non-party members from participating in taxpayer-funded primary elections. As a result, 142,000 independent voters in South Dakota are often left without a meaningful role in the primary elections they help pay for.
As South Dakota Democrats became less relevant, they invited independent voters to participate in their primary. But that doesn’t accomplish much when the most important election is usually the Republican primary.
A minority of registered voters has absolute control
In recent years we have become a one-party state. With less than half of the state’s registered voters, Republicans enjoy a monopoly on statewide races. They occupy all three federal offices, plus the office of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and more.
Republicans also win 90%+ of legislative races. Most legislative races in the state are uncontested or minimally contested, which leads to the observation that if you didn’t get to participate in the Republican primary, you had no voice in choosing your state representatives.
Our legislature wastes time on less important issues
You might think I, as a Republican, should like all this power for my party. But as I mentioned earlier, odd things are happening in our legislature because of it. I think we are all better off if all South Dakotans get to participate equally.
Now that Republicans are in control in our state, the most interesting debates are between Republicans. Lately, conservative Republicans have been challenged from a small, vocal group that is further right politically.
That has led to lots of fussing about seemingly irrelevant stuff like who gets to use which bathrooms. We’d be better off if our legislators would focus on issues effecting more of us, like economic development, healthcare, prisons and housing.
Democracy is a fiction in South Dakota
Our representative democracy does not appear to be working well in South Dakota. Significant groups of South Dakotans have little or no representation or even involvement in the election process. Meanwhile, the Republican party is showing signs of dysfunction.
At the same time, disenfranchised groups of voters sometimes resort to petition drives to try to enact laws like expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana. Issues like that seem well suited for a more balanced legislature.
All South Dakota voters should participate equally
All of us would benefit if more South Dakotans had a meaningful role in our elections. I would like to see the legislature update the election administration system to allow independents to have an appropriate role. I would also like to see the Republican party open its primary to independents to broaden the party’s base of supporters and reduce the influence of the vocal right-wing minority.