(Editor’s note: Joe Kirby of Sioux Falls recently joined the South Dakota bogosphere with his blog SIOUXFALLSJOE.COM. We share one of his posts here with our best wishes for success in his endeavour.)
As a lifelong Republican and casual observer of South Dakota politics, I had a nagging feeling for several years that something was not working right. I heard reports about the Republican convention this year and it started to roll in.
Our 20th century electoral system allowed 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 electoral system to include more South Dakotans in the process.
The Republican convention would have been a fiasco
Reports from the Republican State Convention this summer are concerning. A small but effective right-wing element of the party got its vote and nearly disrupted the plans of the complacent majority.
The outgoing Secretary of State was surprisingly dumped for bogus reasons. The outgoing lieutenant-governor almost suffered the same fate, but for some last-minute political maneuverings. And Marty Jackley’s attempt to return to the Attorney General’s office was also nearly hijacked.
I imagine some conservative Republican office holders (Noem and Thune) scratching their heads wondering how they suddenly became “liberals”.
Our electoral system was established in a different era, with different realities
Decades ago, the Republican and Democratic parties were all that mattered in South Dakota politics. Both could present eligible candidates. While Republicans were overwhelmingly dominant, 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 electoral system to the exclusion of all others. Maybe that made sense at the time, because they could watch each other and balance things out.
Eventually, the Democratic Party’s influence in the state waned as the National Democrats moved to the left. As the number of party voters in the state decreased, the number of independent voters increased.
The number of independent voters on the rise
Today, 49% of registered voters in South Dakota have chosen to be labeled as Republicans. That number is likely inflated by the fact that non-Republicans are motivated to register as Republicans if they want their vote to make a difference. The wisest political advice you can get in South Dakota these days is “whatever your political philosophy is, you might as well register as a Republican so you can have a meaningful voice in elections.” Some are ready to do so, while others naturally refuse to compromise.
Twenty-six percent of South Dakota voters bravely registered as Democrats, knowing that means they can make no difference in the selection of our elected representatives. And 24% chose not to affiliate with any of the parties. This number appears to be low based on national trends.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 43% of voters in the United States now consider themselves independent. Young people, in particular, refuse to choose between the two political parties which they find reprehensible.
Independent voters are second-class citizens in South Dakota
While the political landscape has changed in South Dakota, the mechanics of our elections have not. But no one seems to dispute that. Most South Dakotans accept the legacy electoral system as is. It’s familiar. We know how it works. And we know we end up with Republican winners anyway. But we should at least understand its shortcomings and what they might cost us.
Both parties control South Dakota’s electoral processes. The State Board of Elections administers state elections. Six of the seven council members are appointed by elected officials from both parties. None are nominated by other parties or independent voters in the state.
At a more local level, county superintendents and their assistants play an important role in South Dakota elections. County auditors appoint them from lists submitted by both parties. Independent voters in the state are excluded from the process.
Independents are even discriminated against if they want to stand for election. The signature requirements for their nomination petitions for certain offices are much greater than for party candidates. It is not fair. (I wonder if that would survive a legal 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 primaries. As a result, South Dakota’s 142,000 independent voters often find themselves without a meaningful role in the primary elections they help pay for.
As South Dakota Democrats grew less relevant, they invited independent voters to participate in their primary. But that doesn’t matter 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 more than 90% of legislative races. Most legislative races in the state are uncontested or thinly contested, leading to the observation that if you weren’t able to make the Republican primary, you had no say in choosing your representatives. of state.
Our legislature is wasting time on less important issues
You might think that as a Republican, I should love all that power for my party. But as I mentioned earlier, strange things are happening in our legislature because of this. I think we are all better off if all South Dakotans can participate equally.
Now that Republicans control our state, the most interesting debates are happening among Republicans. Lately, conservative Republicans have been challenged by a small vocal group that is more to the political right.
This has led to a lot of fuss over seemingly irrelevant things like who can use which bathrooms. We would be better off if our legislators focused on issues that matter most to us, like economic development, health care, prisons and housing.
Democracy is a fiction in South Dakota
Our representative democracy does not seem to work well in South Dakota. Significant groups of South Dakotans have little or no representation or even involvement in the electoral process. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is showing signs of dysfunction.
At the same time, groups of disenfranchised voters sometimes use petition campaigns to try to enact laws such as expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana. Such questions seem well suited to a more balanced legislature.
All South Dakota voters should participate equally
We would all benefit if more South Dakotans had a meaningful role in our elections. I would like the Legislative Assembly to update the system for administering elections 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 supporter base and reduce the influence of the vocal right-wing minority.
Joe Kirby is a fourth-generation South Dakota and lifelong Republican. He is a retired businessman who has been active in electoral reform since helping modernize Sioux Falls city government in the 1990s.