South Dakota’s political system is messed up. Most South Dakotans are unrepresented or underrepresented in Pierre. The Republican dominated legislature is skewed to the right of the people and is increasingly dysfunctional as it battles amongst itself. Luckily, there is a straightforward fix available, open primaries.
Open primaries would restore political power to South Dakota voters. All of them.
A Better System Is Available
Let’s go back to basics. The purpose of an election system is to select leaders and representatives. Ideally elections should be fair, transparent and open to all, regardless of political persuasion. Preferably, the system should produce winners who feel an obligation to represent or lead all the people, not just a partisan subset thereof. Open primaries would do that.
In an open primary there is only one primary. Not a Republican primary nor a Democrat primary. All candidates for an office, say governor, would run against each other in a single June primary. There might be half a dozen candidates, maybe three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent.
All registered voters would get to vote in the primary. That seems fair since the public pays for those primary elections. The two candidates with the most votes would advance to the November general election. In a red state like ours, that might mean two Republicans advance to the finals.
The two finalists would be wise to structure campaigns to appeal broadly to all South Dakotans, and not just their party faithful. We might have a popular winner.
All Voters Get to Vote
But the most critical point, and it is worth emphasizing, is that all voters would get to vote. No one would be left out of the publicly financed primary election. Seems fair.
Independents and moderates in both parties would quickly learn to thrive with open primaries. But not everyone likes it.
Strident, hardline partisans do not do well in such an openly competitive system. Manipulative party operatives in both parties can’t bear it. Lets start with Republicans.
Half of active voters in South Dakota have registered as Republicans (some aren’t really Republicans but want to have their vote count). Democrats and Independents make up the other half with about a quarter each. Unfortunately, and unfairly, our election system gives the first half virtually all the political power in the state, to the exclusion of the second half of the population. Republicans have an absolute lock on all statewide races and over 90% of the legislature. And that dominance can make some Republicans smug.
I have Republican friends who consider South Dakota Democrats to be hopelessly naïve. They ridicule their fellow South Dakotans, wondering why they can’t field viable candidates in our state during the era of national politics dominated by the likes of Pelosi, Schumer and AOC.
Those Republicans also belittle independent voters as wishy-washy, unable to pick a side. They mockingly suggest independents run their own candidates, knowing they’d have no chance without the powerful party infrastructure needed to be successful.
Some show no empathy for the lack of representation either group has in government, or their inability to participate in the administration of our state’s elections. They are unwilling to acknowledge that our warped election system makes politics impossible on the other side. Regrettably, the misunderstandings between parties go both ways.
Democrats are Irrelevant
I have Democrat friends who consider most South Dakota Republicans to be cold-hearted, unenlightened and unsympathetic. They assume we are all anti-abortion, election deniers who are unduly focused on who gets to use which bathroom.
Those Democrats understand they are a minority in our state and disappointingly seem to accept their lack of rights under the current system. Some quietly believe it is only a matter of time before a savior will come along to lead them back to the days of McGovern, Kneip and Daschle. They want to keep the distorted election system intact for when their day comes. In the meantime, they have offered to let independents vote in their meaningless primary.
Independents Tune Out
Independents in South Dakota seem generally frustrated. I have older independent friends who have given up on the state’s political system. Most were Republicans who can no longer stomach what they feel the state or national party stands for. They have effectively disengaged. Some long for the days of Reagan or Goldwater when the party more clearly stood for small government and less regulation.
I also have younger independent friends who find nothing attractive about the two political parties. They refuse to buy into their parents’ perverted political system, so they register as independent and tune out local politics. As a result, we are raising a generation of political outsiders.
All these skewed attitudes are symptoms of our weird election system in South Dakota. It empowers the two parties and rewards the most hyper-partisan political operatives. But it is not fair or open. Which leads me to wonder why we aren’t looking for a better way to run our elections.
Change Would Have to Come from Outside of Pierre
South Dakota’s two-party dominant election system is hard wired into the state’s constitution and statutes. The two parties get their private primaries paid for by the voters. The political establishment likes this system and is not going to disrupt the status quo.
I hope someone will accept the challenge to pass petitions and bring an open primaries constitutional amendment to a vote of the people of South Dakota.