South Dakota has a closed primary election system which discourages competition, encourages hyper partisanship and excludes hundreds of thousands of voters from a meaningful role in our elections. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Luckily, there is an alternative election system available for voters to consider next November called open primaries.
The Only Election That Usually Matters in South Dakota
South Dakotans who show up for a primary election get a Republican or Democrat ballot, depending on their registration. Only half of the voters are registered as Republican (and that number is inflated by non-Republicans willing to sign up as Republicans so they can have a meaningful vote in the primary). The vote in that closed primary is all important because that party controls all statewide offices and over 90% of the legislature. Candidates advancing from the Republican primary usually sail through the November general election.
There’s a lot to not like about that system. First of all, it’s not fair. Only those who vote in the pivotal Republican primary have a say in who will represent them and run the state. The other half are, in effect, disenfranchised.
Second, the system is not competitive. Candidates of lesser merit can slip in the back door without a competitive election. A shocking 21 of 35 state senators were ‘voted’ into office last time without a competitive election.
Third, it encourages and rewards hyper-partisanship. Elected officials deviating from the party line risk expulsion by their own party in the next primary. There is a growing consensus that this system needs an overhaul.
Help is On the Way
South Dakota Open Primaries is a non-partisan statewide group poised to do just that. We are dedicated to reshaping our election system to make it fairer and more competitive. We are working hard to gather 37,500 valid signatures to be filed by May 2024. In fact, we already have well over half the number we need. South Dakotans have been receptive to this idea once they hear our proposal.
Our initiative calls for one open primary election where all registered voters would have an equal opportunity to vote. It would cover the three congressional offices, the governor, the legislature and county offices. It would be a South Dakota primary, not a Republican or Democrat primary. All voters would get the same ballot. Candidates of all affiliations would compete in the primary, with the top two advancing to the general election. Here’s an example of how it might play out.
In a single South Dakota June primary all candidates for governor would run against each other, let’s say three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent. All registered voters would get to vote in the primary, with the two most popular candidates advancing to what could be a competitive November general election.
All Voters Get to Vote
But the most critical point, and it is worth emphasizing, is that all South Dakota voters would get to vote in the open primary, leaving no one sidelined during this publicly funded election.
State officials project an additional 50,000 South Dakotans would vote in an open primary. That’s a significant enhancement in voter involvement. And we think the number will be even larger. Moreover, we anticipate heightened competition as more individuals consider entering public service, free from the constraints of partisan politics.
There are currently 150,000 independent or unaffiliated voters in South Dakota. That’s over a quarter of the state’s registered voters. Many have disengaged from the highly charged partisanship that characterizes today’s politics. Open primaries would empower them with a meaningful role in the political process.
Open Primaries Are Better
There’s a lot to like about open primaries: Increased voter turnout, more candidates, more competition and less hyper partisanship.
However, resistance is expected from those benefiting from the existing unfair system, reluctant to relinquish control. On the other hand, several Republican party leaders have told us they see open primaries as a solution to the challenges they face with radical factions of the party. And it is important to note that the two political parties do fine in open primaries states.
South Dakota Open Primaries is well on the way to giving voters a chance to adopt a fairer, more competitive election system. We are actively collecting signatures around the state, aiming for a filing by May 2024. Once approved by voters next November, it will revolutionize South Dakota’s electoral landscape in 2026—because open primaries let all voters vote!