VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) — Journalists, researchers and students have been gauging the health of our democracy at a gathering in Vermillion Friday. The Chiesman Democracy Conference on the University of South Dakota campus featured presentations and panel discussions on ways to improve civic engagement and promote a more robust democracy. This conference takes place against a backdrop of growing distrust in our democratic institutions.

Satisfaction with democracy is on shaky ground in South Dakota according to a survey by the Chiesman Center for Democracy.

“Compared to the rest of the nation at least, South Dakotans report being less-satisfied with democracy, having less confidence in institutions such as the executive branch, Congress, the press, colleges and universities,” Chiesman Center for Democracy Director Shane Nordyke said.

A smaller percentage of South Dakotans surveyed question whether democracy is all that it’s cracked up to be in the first place.

“Like 12% of South Dakotans aren’t sure that democracy is the best alternative to governance because of their dissatisfaction with the democratic process,” Nordyke said.

Researchers say much of the distrust in institutions has its roots in the early days of the pandemic as well as the past two contested presidential elections. People attending this conference say gatherings like this can shed light in finding ways to heal these strains within our democracy.

“I think it can get better. I think there’s a lot of young people out there that are pushing for change, a lot of people here at the university that I know of are pushing for change,” USD senior Joey O’Daniel said.

“We always have to be diligent and democracy is something that everybody does, not just something that a government does and is in charge of,” USD junior Allison Horkey said.

People attending the conference say civic engagement, whether in the form of voting in elections or simply showing a willingness to listen to an opposing viewpoint, can lower the temperature of these politically-charged times and restore faith in democracy for the future.

The conference also featured a media roundtable that included KELOLAND News Director Beth Jensen.