'Open primaries' ballot committee hopes to improve, moderate South Dakota elections
“It’s the Democrat's fault for not being able to field candidates," the state GOP chair said in response to one of the measure's supposed merits. "It’s certainly not a fault of ... the system."
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In the November general election last year, 20 of South Dakota’s 35 Senate contests featured only one candidate, a Republican.
The same lack of meaningful opposition was true for about half of the seats in the state’s House of Representatives: 11 of the contests, where the top two nominees earn a seat in the Legislature, featured only two Republicans; 10 others featured three candidates, two of whom were Republicans.
“The current system is broken,” Joe Kirby, a retired Sioux Falls businessman and chairman of South Dakota Open Primaries, told Forum News Service in an April 24 interview. “You’ve got only around half of the people eligible to vote in the Republican primary, and that's the only election that really matters more times than not.”
In a move he says would help moderate those who serve in public office and bring in more voters, Kirby and a group of activists across the political spectrum last week announced their plans to put “open primaries” on the 2024 ballot.
The ballot amendment, led by South Dakotans for Open Primaries, would amend the South Dakota Constitution and turn the current two-primary system — one run by Democrats and the other by Republicans — into a single primary, where the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election.
The change would apply to the statewide primaries for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, as well as all elections at the county and state legislative levels.
In the case of elections for state representatives, where each district sends two members to Pierre, the top-four vote recipients in the open primary would advance to the general election.
For Sen. John Wiik, the head of South Dakota’s Republican Party, the supposed problem identified by Kirby does not require a solution he referred to as a “jungle primary.”
“It’s the Democrat's fault for not being able to field candidates. It’s certainly not a fault of the Republican Party or the system,” he said. “Instead of changing the system, maybe the Democrats should do some soul-searching as to why they’re so out of touch that they can't find candidates in rural areas.”
Wiik finds another argument from the ballot committee — that primaries should be open to all due to their publicly financed nature — similarly unpersuasive.
“To make sure we have the integrity in our primaries that we have in our general elections, we need the state involved,” Wiik said. “It is a function of the state of South Dakota to operate free and fair elections. And if we're going to offer it to Libertarians and Democrats, then the Republican Party should be able to choose how to run its own primary system.”
The South Dakota Democratic Party currently opens its primary to Democrats as well as registered independents, who make up approximately one-quarter of the total electorate.
Though the state’s GOP does require primary voters to register as Republicans, Wiik didn’t see this as a difficult hurdle.
“There's no membership fee, there's no secret handshake, there's no bloodline requirement,” he said. “All we ask is, if you want to choose who the candidate of the Republican Party is, you should be a Republican.”
In practice, Kirby, a registered Republican, said he thinks many otherwise independent or liberally minded South Dakotans have “plugged their noses” and registered as Republicans to vote in the “only primary that matters.”
“It's a little like if you're a Lutheran and you're told you have to register as a Catholic or an Episcopalian,” Kirby said to illustrate his problem with the status quo.
According to Open Primaries, a New York-based organization looking to do away with partisan primaries in favor of the open alternative, a majority of states have some form of open primary, a setup that some research shows has a small but consistently positive impact on voter turnout.
The organization also points to an effect of reduced partisanship, as they claim closed primaries incentivize candidates to appeal to a party’s fringes; a testimonial from lawmakers in Nebraska, one of a handful of states with a nonpartisan open primary, says office-seekers must “reach out beyond their party to all voters to be elected” under their system.
In South Dakota, the open primary idea fell short in 2016 with Amendment V, which earned 45% of the vote. However, that iteration also included a provision that did away with partisan identification on the ballot, reading “neither the candidate’s party affiliation nor lack of party affiliation may appear on the primary or general election ballots in any election.”
Kirby pointed to this as a tactical error that has been fixed.
“A lot of people that were opposed in 2016 said if we had just done open primaries they would have been in favor,” Kirby said.
Moving forward, Kirby and the rest of the open primaries committee have until May 2024 to collect the required 35,000 or so signatures to appear on the November 2024 ballot, a process he says will include both volunteers and paid petition circulators.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.