This story is reported by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit news organization. Find more in-depth reporting at www.sdnewswatch.org.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of South Dakota News Watch stories providing analysis of potential South Dakota ballot initiatives for the 2024 election.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (SDNW) — It’s a well-worn adage that politics are about timing, and that’s especially true when it comes to citizen-led ballot measures in South Dakota.
Back in 2016, New York-based nonprofit Open Primaries helped fund a petition effort to change South Dakota’s electoral system with Amendment V, teaming with local Democratic Party stalwarts Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson to build support.
The constitutional amendment aimed to circumvent party primaries with nonpartisan races, in which voters would consider candidates on an open ballot with no party designations and send the top two vote-getters to the general election.
In a state dominated by the Republican Party, where Donald Trump captured nearly two-thirds of the vote in that 2016 election, the concept was received coolly, especially after GOP heavyweights such as Sen. John Thune and then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard opposed it with money and political muscle.
Amendment V was rejected. But the fact that it received 44.5% of the vote confirmed Joe Kirby’s suspicions that the open primary concept could be retooled and resurrected to face fresh judgment from South Dakota voters when the time was right.
“That amendment was a hard product to sell,” said Kirby, a Sioux Falls businessman and government reform advocate who is spearheading a 2024 campaign for open primaries with party labels intact.
“There was a lot of criticism from people who want to know what party the candidates are in. We think voters – Republican, Democratic and Independent – are going to be more favorably inclined this time around.”
Top-two primary elections would include Independent voters
Kirby’s group, South Dakota Open Primaries, has submitted a petition for a constitutional amendment to establish top-two primaries – sometimes called “jungle primaries” – for governor, Congress, state legislative and county races. All registered voters would be eligible to weigh in on which candidates advance to the general election.
Currently, Independent voters in South Dakota can vote in Democratic primaries but not Republican contests, which Kirby calls unfair.
It’s also a potential selling point in a state where the breakdown of registered voters (301,589 Republicans, 151,092 Democrats, 148,497 Independents) makes Independents a formidable voting bloc (25%) to be excluded from a process where most races are decided in GOP primaries due to Democratic Party shortcomings.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 94-11 in the state Legislature, and GOP candidates ran unopposed in 21 of the 35 state Senate races in 2022. The last time a Democratic candidate won a statewide election was 2008.
“A lot of voters are struggling to find a meaningful vote,” said De Knudson, a former Sioux Falls city councilor and self-described moderate Republican who serves as treasurer for South Dakota Open Primaries.
“Reform has to start with the voters. People who are in office are glad to be there and not very interested in changing the system that elected them, right?”
Supporters point to GOP state convention ‘circus’ in 2022
Typically, the GOP stranglehold on state politics would be enough to mount a formidable “establishment” response against a ballot measure buoyed by out-of-state interests that threatens the electoral status quo.
But Kirby sees a couple of factors in his group’s favor, most notably a schism in state Republican ranks between moderates and an emergent far-right caucus. That group found its footing with “election security” as a rallying cry following Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020.
The 2022 state GOP convention in Watertown offered stark examples of this shift.
Monae Johnson, who has refused to publicly acknowledge Biden’s win as legitimate, ousted incumbent Secretary of State Steve Barnett. And Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden faced a surprisingly stiff challenge from former Speaker of the House Steve Haugaard, who ran to the right of Gov. Kristi Noem in the gubernatorial primary.
“I believe that many Republicans opened their eyes a little wider after the circus in Watertown,” said Knudson, whose husband, Dave, a Sioux Falls lawyer and former GOP state senator, is also involved in the ballot initiative.
The theory is that open primaries, rather than incentivizing candidates from taking extreme positions to win a partisan primary, will help “lower the volume” on state politics, in Kirby’s words, to produce officeholders more reflective of the general electorate.
Recent polls commissioned by South Dakota News Watch have shown state voters to be closer to the middle than most Republican lawmakers on issues such as abortion access and gun legislation.
Sen. Rounds tells News Watch he opposes open primaries
Still, any shakeup in traditional election structures is likely to ruffle feathers among those who currently hold power as well as what Knudson calls the “unimaginative traditionalists” who oppose change in general.
But a coalition of frustrated moderates and eager-to-pounce Independents could prove to be a powerful partnership as the group seeks to collect 35,017 valid signatures by the May 7, 2024, deadline to qualify for the ballot.
“The stars seem aligned for us because the Republican Party has been experiencing turmoil,” said Kirby, who helped lead an effort to change Sioux Falls’ city government structure from a commission model to mayor-council in the 1990s.
“There’s less resistance from Republicans to the idea of changing something to broaden the base of voters.”
Kirby said that “key Republicans have told us they support our effort but that they won’t be able to go on the record as being supportive,” to which Knudson added that “private support isn’t terribly helpful,” though it’s clearly better than public opposition.
U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds told News Watch that he opposes the open primaries proposal. He noted a push to move away from convention nominee selections for statewide executive offices such as lieutenant governor and attorney general, a movement that fell short during the 2023 legislative session.
“Our current primary system has served us well, and I am supportive of it remaining in place,” Rounds wrote in an emailed statement.
“I also believe that in the future there is a strong possibility that statewide office nominees currently selected by the party at a convention will be selected in the primary as well.”
National electoral reform group donated heavily to 2016 measure
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson told News Watch that he is not taking a position on the ballot proposal, while Noem and Sen. John Thune declined interview requests.
It’s still an open question whether top-tier state Republicans – the ones with enough cachet and campaign cash to make a difference – will actively work against the measure, assuming it reaches the ballot next year.
Open Primaries, the national nonprofit initially funded by Texas billionaire John Arnold and run by electoral reform advocate John Opdyke, donated nearly $1 million in cash to the Amendment V campaign in 2016. Knudson said the group is supportive this time around, but it’s not clear what financial support is forthcoming.
The opposition group in 2016, No on V, raised $260,000 in cash, including $140,000 from the South Dakota Republican Party, $55,000 from Daugaard for South Dakota, $5,000 from Friends of John Thune and $5,000 from Rounds for Senate.
“Our focus for 2023 is entirely on getting the word out and getting enough signatures,” said Kirby, adding that his group will use paid and volunteer petition circulators. “And then 2024 will be about the political-type campaign.”
California’s top-two primary has helped elect moderates
Though nearly half of states have some form of open primary system, only three currently use a top-two primary such as the one proposed for South Dakota.
California and Washington use top-two primaries (with party labels included) in races other than presidential contests, while Nebraska uses a nonpartisan primary for state legislative races as part of its unicameral system.
In Democratic-controlled California, where voters approved a top-two primary in 2012, presenting candidates to all voters in primaries has led to more moderates getting elected, forcing far-left legislators to work toward the middle to pass laws.
A 2017 study by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that open primaries, combined with other shifts such as redistricting reform, can help “draw American parties back toward the center of the ideological spectrum.”
For the minority party – Republicans in California and Democrats in South Dakota – the concern is that candidates will get shut out of the general election in the top-two system, making even more dire the party’s lack of representation.
Kirby’s response is basically that South Dakota Democrats can’t get elected anyway, given the current political climate.
“You could get Kristi Noem and John Thune and Mike Rounds together and they couldn’t mount a decent campaign as Democrats in South Dakota,” Kirby said.
“Democrats are associated with national Democratic leaders, and that’s just not a marketable product in South Dakota. I don’t necessarily blame the Democrats. I think they’ve got an impossible task, given the national leadership of the party. It’s all a symptom of the extremism that’s gotten into politics.”
Democrat Duba pledges support to open primary measure
State Rep. Linda Duba, a Democrat from Sioux Falls, who attended an April 19 press conference with South Dakota Open Primaries supporters, joked in an interview with News Watch about being a “token Democrat” for this latest ballot effort, as opposed to the more progressive-themed campaign for Amendment V in 2016.
She disagreed with Kirby’s assessment about the election chances of Democrats in South Dakota being hindered by positions taken by the Biden administration or other national party figures.
“I’m tired of people saying (the Democrats) are extreme,” said Duba.
“When you talk to the people in South Dakota, they want common-sense reforms. They’re fed up with silly cultural issues that we spend all our time on in the Legislature and we don’t get the real work of the state done. Those things are being driven from the national level, and if we want to talk about which party is doing this, it’s the far right.”
Duba, who represents District 15 and was first elected in 2018, said she supports open primaries because she believes Independents are getting shut out of the process and a more open system will lead to better candidates and, theoretically, better policy.
“At the end of the day, if you’re worried about being re-elected, you’re worried about the wrong thing,” she said. “Our job is to understand the needs and wants of the state and to try to support the good of all the people, whether you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican.”