SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Joe Kirby says it’s a simple pitch – “Let all voters vote.” 

The self-described longtime Republican, lawyer and former leader of the multigenerational family business Western Surety Company is the chairman of South Dakota Open Primaries. Kirby said he played a key role in helping reform Sioux Falls’ city government in the 1990s and called “good government” a passion. 

“Right now, the system is designed to reward partisans. If you’re a Republican or a Democrat legislator and you start working with the other side, your party takes you out the next primary,” Kirby told KELOLAND News. “That’s because independent voters don’t get a voice. If we can involve independent voters in our elections, I think we’ll all be happier with the results.” 

This week, South Dakota Open Primaries announced the language it submitted to the South Dakota Legislative Research Council for a constitutional amendment with hopes to gather more than 50,000 signatures and place the topic on the 2024 election ballot. 

Before the group can start gathering signatures, the LRC must review the language and provide comments to the sponsors before the final language is submitted to the attorney general for a ballot title, ballot explanation and fiscal note. 

For a constitutional amendment, the group needs 35,017 signatures from registered voters by Nov. 5, 2023. That number is 10% of the total vote for governor in the last gubernatorial election. The threshold is greater for a constitutional amendment than an initiated measure or referred law because it will impact the state’s constitution and Kirby said that is the proper method for change. 

“How you run elections is very important and it is in our constitution. So, if we’re going to change the way elections are run, we need to change the constitution,” Kirby said. “We’re hoping to mount a campaign to educate the public on why they should vote for open primaries in November of 2024.” 

Kirby said a future campaign would aim to point out shortfalls with the current system of government in South Dakota. 

“The system is rigged to reward the people that are most partisan. It rewards partisanship and discourages moderation,” Kirby said. “I’d say the radical right has too much influence in South Dakota. I am a lifetime Republican, but I’m not happy with the direction my party’s been taking. We’re locked into a system that our grandparents designed and it’s not working anymore.” 

Kirby said the group South Dakota Open Primaries has 24 members on its advisory committee and board with eyes to grow the organization in more communities across the state by the end of next year. 

“There’ll be some opposition, but I would think there’d be less than there has been in the past,” Kirby said. “I think everybody’s kind of aware that things aren’t working really well in South Dakota politically.” 

How open primaries would work 

The proposed amendment would allow all candidates to be listed on a single primary ballot, regardless of political party, and any voter could vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. 

“The two candidates receiving the greatest numbers of votes cast shall advance to a general election,” the proposed amendment states. You can read the proposed amendment below.

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“We’d have more interesting general elections,” Kirby said. “You’d have multiple people running for an office. Two candidates would advance to the finals. You’d have two popular candidates in the finals every year.” 

For state legislature seats in the House where two candidates represent one district, the proposed amendment says the number of final candidates would be four or “twice the number to be elected.” 

The proposed amendment is a long way from changing elections in the state. The possible change needs to qualify for the ballot by November 2023 and pass with a majority of South Dakota voters in November 2024 to take effect in 2025 to change South Dakota elections in 2026.

Current party system

As of December 2022, there are 298,178 registered Republican voters in South Dakota. There are 151,558 registered Democrat voters, 145,901 registered independent voters, 2,848 registered Libertarian voters, 1,388 listed as other and 60,763 inactive voters. 

Current state law for primary elections says: “No person may vote a party ballot at any primary election unless the person is registered as a member of that political party in the precinct in which the person seeks to vote.” 

In the South Dakota Legislature, 20 Senate races went unopposed in the 2022 general election

KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer reported on the voter registration history in South Dakota ahead of the 2022 election and highlighted how Republicans traditionally have posted the largest numbers of registered voters in South Dakota. 

Kirby said open primaries would not make political parties irrelevant. 

“Political parties will continue. They’ll be important,” Kirby said. “I’ll still be supporting my party. I guess they’ll be less radicalized.” 

Kirby also said the constitutional amendment would change how independent candidates could get on the ballot. Currently, independent candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Representative and governor need 1% of the total vote for the governor’s race in 2022, while Republican and Democrat candidates only need 1% of their party. 

“Everybody will have the same threshold of signatures because you can say whatever party you want or you can say you’re not in the party,” Kirby said. “The legislature will have to redesign the signature requirements so that if you’re running for governor, doesn’t matter what party you are, here’s how many signatures you need.”