PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — After voter registration closes on October 24 at 5 p.m. and final numbers are posted for South Dakota’s November 8 general election, Republicans could hold their largest lead in at least 50 years, with roughly double what’s in the Democrats column. And “No-Party Affiliation/Independents” could be right behind the Democrats.

That political forecast is based not only on the latest numbers that, as of Monday, had Republican registrations at 294,977, Democrats at 151,029 and Independents 144,106. A KELOLAND News analysis found that several long-term trends have eaten away Democrats’ competitiveness for statewide and legislative elections in South Dakota.

Republicans traditionally have posted the largest numbers of registered voters in South Dakota. Voter-registration records available through the South Dakota Secretary of State office go back only to 1968, but results for governor and the Legislature before then reflect a Republican dominance that’s been broken only a few times — such as when Republican office-holders had so mishandled the economy or other significant challenges that voters decided it was time for a Democrat for a change.

South Dakota voters have elected 25 different Republicans as governor a total of 45 times. They’ve chosen only four Democrats — the most recent in 1974 — a total of eight times, and one Populist, twice. South Dakota voters also have shown loyalty, even when they did vote Democrat: They kept W.J. Bulow and Tom Berry for two terms apiece and Dick Kneip for three. Ralph Herseth was the only Democrat turned out again after one term.

A change in voting age

As for voter registration, Democrats received a short burst of increased relevancy after the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1971 to allow voting at age 18. The South Dakota Constitution had set the age at 21.

South Dakota voters were asked to amend the age to 18 in 1952. That narrowly failed 128,231 to 128,916. Another attempt in 1958 lost by a much wider margin of 71,033 to 137,942. An effort in 1970 to drop it to 19 lost in similar fashion, 78,320 to 117,367. After the U.S. Constitution was amended to 18, South Dakota voters responded in 1972 by backing the change 206,170-75,765. It’s been age 18 since.  

An attempt to further expand voting age failed in 1994. That amendment would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in all elections, if they were turning 18 on or before general election day. South Dakota voters turned down that proposal 76,921 to 228,444. 

The 1972 switch to age 18 helped Democrats register more voters and close the difference. The 1970 registration numbers were Republicans 182,502, Democrats 134,123, and others 34,691. The 1972 numbers, helped by interest from both parties in the presidential race between Democrat U.S. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota challenging Republican U.S. President Richard Nixon, climbed to Republicans 195,737, Democrats 158,816 and others 37,703.

In the next few election cycles, Democrats built on those gains, while Republican registrations stagnated. For 1974, the totals were Republicans 193,234, Democrats 170,937 and others 37,480; that election marked the most recent time that voters sent a Democrat to the governor’s office, as Kneip won his third term.

In 1976, the two parties were nearly even, with Republicans 196,841, Democrats 190,572 and others 38,119. In 1978, Democrats pulled ahead, with Republicans losing registrations: Republicans 191,766, Democrats 193,345 and others 35,707. But by the 1980 general election, Republicans were back on top: Republicans 206,411, Democrats 202,052 and others 39,045. Democrats haven’t been back out in front since.

The membership of the Legislature reflected the Democrats’ rise in strength during the Seventies. After the 1970 elections, the state House of Representatives was 46 Republicans and 29 Democrats, while the Senate was 24 Republicans and 11 Democrats. After the 1972 election, the House was balanced at 35 and 35, while the Senate was 17 Republicans and 18 Democrats. The 1974 results saw Republicans regain control of the House 37-33, but Democrats ran the Senate with a 19-16 advantage. After the 1976 elections, Republicans controlled both chambers again, running the House 48-22 and holding the Senate 24-11.

A registration reform backfires

Another development that hurt Democratic numbers in South Dakota was something that was intended to make easier voter registration easier.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. South Dakota’s Democrats in Congress, U.S. Senator Tom Daschle and U.S. Representative Tim Johnson, voted for it. Republican U.S. Senator Larry Pressler voted against.

As a result of it becoming federal law on May 20, 1993, independent registrations began to steadily climb in South Dakota — but Democrats began to slowly decline. 

One section of the act, according to Congress.gov, declared that “each state motor vehicle license application (or renewal application) shall simultaneously serve as a voter registration application with respect to Federal elections, unless the applicant fails to sign the voter registration application.” 

Likewise, another section required “each state to designate voter registration agencies including: (1) all State offices that provide public assistance, unemployment compensation, or disability services; (2) State or local government offices; (3) Federal and nongovernmental offices (upon their agreement); and (4) armed forces recruitment offices.” 

Prior to the act’s passage, registrations of South Dakota voters identifying as “other” — that is, not as a Republican or a Democrat – ranged, election to election, in the 8% range from 1982 to 1990 and rose to 9.53% for 1992. Since then, the percentages of what are now listed as “NPA/Independent” have steadily climbed, reaching 24.23% as of October 1, 2022, according to official data from the South Dakota Secretary of State office.  

Democrats suffered more than Republicans as NPA/Independent registrations rose. There were 36,381 “others” in 1982. By 2020, the NPA/Independents numbered 138,337. Republicans increased, too, from 200,422 in 1982, up to 277,788 in 2020. But Democrats went the other direction, dropping from 189,708 in 1982, to 158,829 in 2020. 

The effect could be seen another way. In the 2012 general election, none of South Dakota’s 66 counties had more NPA/Independents than Democrats.

But by the 2020 general election, 12 counties had more NPA/Independents than Democrats. They included Brookings, Butte, Custer, Fall River, Hanson, Harding, Lawrence, Lincoln, Meade, Pennington, Perkins, and Union. As of October 3, 2022, the list had expanded to 17, with Deuel, Faulk, Jones, Minnehaha and Yankton now also part of the group.

From red to purple to blue to red

Republicans have held control of South Dakota’s seats in Congress much of the time. Seventeen Republicans won election to the U.S. Senate since 1889 statehood, compared to six Democrats and one Populist.

South Dakota’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives have varied in number through the decades, from three to the current one. Democrat Tom Daschle won the House seat in 1982 when South Dakota was last down-sized; starting in 1983, Daschle served with Republican U.S. Senators Jim Abdnor and Pressler.

Since 1983, four Republicans and three Democrats have held the at-large House seat. Democrats controlled the House seat and both Senate seats for part of 2004, after Stephanie Herseth (Sandlin) won election to an open House seat that June, while Tim Johnson and Daschle were senators.

Republican John Thune, a former U.S. representative, defeated Daschle in 2004 for a Senate seat. Then-state legislator Kristi Noem beat Herseth Sandlin in 2010 for the House seat. Johnson retired in 2014, rather than seek re-election, with Republican Mike Rounds, a former governor, winning the open Senate seat. Republican Dusty Johnson, a former state utilities commissioner, won the House seat in 2018 after Noem ran for governor.

Currently, South Dakota’s congressional delegation is entirely Republican. Thune’s victory over Daschle, the U.S. Senate’s Democratic leader at the time, took away a powerful force for South Dakota Democrats. Noem’s victory six years later further diminished Democrats’ strength. Johnson’s health-related retirement four years later revealed the Democrats no longer had much of a bench waiting for a chance to run.

The Jim Valley upheaval

Another change that ate into Democrat voter numbers came in the James River Valley that runs north to south in eastern South Dakota. Four of the valley’s most-populated counties changed from solidly Democrat or toss-up to solidly Republican, with NPA/Independents making huge gains at the same time.

Brown County, with Aberdeen as county seat, had voter registration in 1982 of Republicans 9,614, Democrats 12,136, and others 1,966. By 2020, registrations were Republicans 11,056, Democrats 8,030, Libertarians 77, others 51, and NPA/Independents 4,688. 

Beadle County, with Huron as county seat, had voter registration in 1982 of Republicans 4,768, Democrats 6,515 and others 1,055. By 2012, registrations were Republicans 4,476, Democrats 4,324, Constitution 3, Libertarians 23, others 69 and Independents 1,765. The next eight years saw Democrats continue to lose numbers. In 2020, registrations were Republicans 4,537, Democrats 3,083, Libertarians 16, others 42, and NPA/Independents 2,299. 

Davison County, with Mitchell as county seat, had voter registration in 1982 of Republicans 4,265, Democrats 5,410 and others 1,081. By 2002, registrations were Republicans 4,892, Democrats 4,304, Libertarians 16, Reform 1, and all others 1,332. The trend accelerated. By 2020, registrations were Republicans 5,938, Democrats 3,157, Libertarians 24, others 31, and NPA/Independents 2,676.

Yankton County, with Yankton as county seat, had voter registration in 1982 of Republicans 5,501, Democrats 4,650, and others 935. By 1992, Democrats had cut into the Republicans lead; registrations were Republicans 5,452, Democrats 5,211, Libertarians 4, and others 1,175. In the three decades since, Republicans re-asserted their dominance. In 2020, registrations were Republicans 6,652, Democrats 3,981, Libertarians 63, others 18, and NPA/Independents 1,344.

Current status and what’s ahead

Noem turned back a challenge from Billie Sutton, the Senate Democrat leader, to win the governorship in 2018. The 172,912-161,454 finish was the closest a Democrat came to winning since Kneip’s victories. This year, Governor Noem faces challenges from state Representative Jamie Smith, the House Democrat leader, and Libertarian nominee Tracey Quint. Noem led Smith 45-41% in a recent public-opinion survey.

The Legislature currently is dominated by Republicans. They hold 62 of the 70 House seats and 32 of the 35 Senate seats, with Democrats in the rest. Looking ahead, 20 Republicans have already won Senate seats for the 2023-24 term, because they have no opponents on November 8. At least 35 House seats will go Republican, too, because the only candidates running are Republicans or because challengers haven’t contested both seats in the 35 two-seat districts.