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Open Primaries

A Healthy Democratic Process Requires Real Competition

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in the Rapid City Journal and has been republished on IVN with permission from the author.

I am a fourth generation South Dakotan and a lifelong Republican. I was once again disappointed last week as another legislative session came to an end marked by senseless disputes between far-right Republicans and their slightly more moderate brethren on issues of little importance to most of us. They debate issues like limiting the rights of the small number of transgender people in our state to participate in sports or use public bathrooms. Or undoing what the voters passed through initiative at the previous election. Meanwhile, issues such as economic development, health care, election reform, infrastructure improvement and other projects designed to make our state better are neglected. Politics in Pierre have become a broken record. It’s not hard to understand why.

Our election system in South Dakota is broken, as it is in so many one-party states across the country. It gives absolute power to the majority party.  That’s not who we’re supposed to be. South Dakotans love competition. Republicans in particular. In fact, our state party celebrates free enterprise and capitalism in its platform.

So why does it fear competition in our elections?

In South Dakota, the primary election is the only election that matters. The winner of the Republican primary is the winner of the general election almost every time and only registered Republicans can participate. But these “members only” primary elections are paid for by all the taxpayers. Democrats claim 27% of our registered voters, while 24% are independents and 48% are Republicans. I suspect the Republican number is inflated somewhat by independents and even Democrats who plug their noses and join the party they don’t support just so they can exercise a meaningful vote. Still, Republican voters make up less than half the electorate-but they call all the shots. That includes redrawing legislative districts every ten years to further protect their democracy thwarting advantage.

Which leads to an odd result. A majority of active registered voters in South Dakota have little to no voice in state government. Our election system is rigged so that a majority of the state’s voters are largely irrelevant. It’s a political monopoly, pure and simple.  And any honest conservative will tell you that monopolization leads to subpar results.

It’s bad enough that candidates who emerge from the Republican primary have either no challenger, or only a token competitor, in the general election. But the Republican primaries themselves are uncompetitive. Party primary winners for statewide office often face nominal competition in the primary, because party leaders make sure that the fix is in. And once those candidates enter office, those same leaders ensure they cleave close to the party agenda or face the threat of a well-financed and more dogmatic opponent in the next primary.

South Dakota Republicans have even reduced the right of voters to use the initiative and referendum process. In recent years, they have put up difficult roadblocks for good faith efforts by South Dakotans who want to petition for change. Looks like they not only don’t want competition, they also don’t trust the people. A good recent example of that is the Governor’s and legislature’s attacks on marijuana legalization passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2020.

Monopolies, whether they be economic or political, never favor citizens. Just like the marketplace, without competition in our politics there are no incentives to be responsive to public opinion. The result is stagnation and dysfunction, not innovation.  It’s not good for our state and it’s not good for my party, the Republican Party.  Competition makes you better, it makes you more creative, more productive and stronger. Competition produces desirable results.

We need to develop the incentives for new voices to be heard, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they would challenge our Republican Party to think deeper and do better. There are reforms that would go a long way towards that goal. Alaska, Washington and Nebraska all have different forms of nonpartisan open primaries that require all candidates to compete on an even footing and let all voters vote. Ranked choice and other alternative voting systems allow voters to express their preferences more accurately, avoiding an either/or choice among sometimes repugnant options. There are models of non-partisan redistricting that put citizens in charge of drawing legislative districts. We should explore and debate all of them.

South Dakota Republicans support competition in business. They are proud of the state’s business climate which they use effectively to attract new businesses to the state. They express support for free enterprise system and the benefits of capitalism in their platform. But if open competition is good for our economy and consumers, why don’t we have it at the ballot box? Let’s fix our elections and build a stronger, and more productive future for our state.

What is this story missing? Let us know. >>What is this story missing? Let us know. >>

About the Author

Joe Kirby

Joe Kirby, a registered Republican and retired businessman, is a member of the National Spokesperson Committee of Open Primaries.

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