SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Signatures are now being gathered for a possible ballot measure to dramatically change the way elections are conducted in South Dakota. 

The South Dakota Secretary of State’s office approved a petition for a Constitutional Amendment that would establish a top-two primary election system. The statewide ballot question committee, South Dakota Open Primaries, is holding a news conference Wednesday in Sioux Falls to highlight its first signature for the petition.  

Joe Kirby, a lawyer and well-known retired Sioux Falls businessman, is the main sponsor behind the ballot measure to start a top-two primary election in South Dakota. Kirby told KELOLAND News in December 2022 he wants to let all voters vote. 

Kirby is the chairman of South Dakota Open Primaries, which has a four-member board of directors with De Knudson, Tom Dempster and Drey Samuelson serving with Kirby. 

Dempster, a former Republican state Senator and Minnehaha County Commissioner, said Wednesday he talks and works with people he agrees with and people he disagrees with. 

“Our partisan primary system, all too often, focuses candidates to a very small and ideological eye of the needle,” Dempster said. “Over time, we, the people, become more and more extreme. That means we don’t talk.” 

Dempster said the problem isn’t the people, it’s the primary system. 

Two self-described registered independent voters – Tom Heinz and Jason Pieper – said not enough voices were being heard. 

“Last year, 95% of primary elections for our state legislature were closed to independent voters,” said Heinz, a business owner from Dakota Dunes. 

Pieper said there was an alarming number of uncontested races in South Dakota. 

“We have too many politicians in our state running unopposed,” Heinz said. “Our broken primary system is a big part of this problem.” 

After the speakers, Kirby became the first person to sign the petition.

Kirby said he hasn’t heard of any opposition to the Constitutional Amendment but said he could see opposition from the “radical sides of both parties.” 

Kirby said “it would be a good start” if the Republican Party in South Dakota opened its primary election to independent voters. 

“That still wouldn’t let all voters vote in a single primary election,” Kirby said. “We think this is a better system. All voters would get to decide which are the two best (candidates) to move onto the general election.” 

Democrat Rep. Linda Duba was in attendance at the news conference. The Sioux Falls lawmaker said she is supporting South Dakota Open Primaries because it is the right thing to do. She said she’s not concerned if Democrat candidates would be left off November ballots with the top-two primary system. 

“If we worry about that, then we’re worried about the wrong thing,” Duba said. “The more that you get people involved in the process, you can generate interest and hopefully you will generate people that will come out and run for office.”

KELOLAND’s Tom Hanson asked Kirby what the ballot measure would mean for average South Dakotans. 

“The average South Dakotan would see a single ballot when they go in, instead Democrats get one ballot, Republicans get another and Independents don’t get one,” Kibry said. “All of us would get the same ballot to look at and we get to pick our choice for governor, for House, for Senate.”

South Dakota’s current primary system 

Currently, South Dakota primary elections are considered as partially closed primaries. 

Political parties may let unaffiliated voters vote in primaries and exclude members of opposing parties. In South Dakota, only registered Republican voters can vote in the Republican primary, while Independents and Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California and Washington use the top-two primary format which lists all candidates on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getters in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election. The NCSL says Louisiana and Nebraska use other primary processes but share a lot of traits with the top-two primary. 

Washington was the first state to enact top-two primaries in 2004 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the top-two system in 2008 after political parties challenged the law. 

What is South Dakota Open Primaries? 

Registered as a statewide ballot question committee, South Dakota Open Primaries reported $51,150 in income in the latest campaign finance report by the secretary of state’s office. 

To be placed on the 2024 ballot, South Dakota Open Primaries will need more than 35,000 signatures from registered South Dakota voters by May 7, 2024. That number is 10% of the total vote for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

The deadline for turning in signatures for Constitutional Amendments used to be 12 months ahead of the election, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals deemed the 12-month deadline unconstitutional.