The majority of South Dakotans want a new primary election system

Voters walk into their precincts at Embrace Church in Sioux Falls during primary day on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

Voters walk into their precincts at Embrace Church in Sioux Falls during primary day on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

South Dakotans broadly support a constitutional amendment that would change the way the state conducts primaries, according to an academic poll of 500 registered voters co-sponsored by South Dakota News Watch.

The statewide survey, also sponsored by the University of South Dakota’s Chiesman Center for Democracy, found that 55% of respondents supported the plan to change the state’s election format, while 33% opposed and 12% undecided.

That’s a jump in support from a similarly structured poll from November 2023, which showed 49% supporting the measure, 34% opposed and 17% undecided.

If Amendment H passes, there would be “top two” primaries for gubernatorial, congressional and state legislative and county races instead of political parties holding separate primaries.

All registered voters could be eligible to help decide which two candidates advance to the general election. Currently, a voter registered with a political party in South Dakota can only vote in that party’s primary. Those registered as unaffiliated can participate in Democratic primaries but not Republican contests.

“The main argument for this amendment is fairness,” said Joe Kirby, president of the South Dakota Open Primaries, a Sioux Falls businessman and advocate for government reform. “All voters should have an equal voice in choosing their representatives and leaders.”

Could open primaries hurt Democrats?

The issue has gained importance in the wake of historically low turnout in South Dakota’s June 4 primary, which included 44 Republican legislative primaries in addition to county elections but a lack of statewide engagement. There was one Democratic legislative primary in the state.

Only 17% of registered voters in South Dakota cast ballots in the election, including 10% in the state’s largest county, Minnehaha.

Julia Hellwege, an associate professor of political science at USD and director of the Chiesman Center, said Democrats and unaffiliated voters feeling left out of the process could lead to a greater willingness to explore alternatives such as open primaries.

The News Watch poll found that Amendment H is supported by 82% of Democrats and 59% of independent voters. Republicans are not so convinced that change is needed: 40% are in favor of open primaries, compared to 43% against and 18% undecided.

Female voters support the measure by a margin of 62% to 28%, compared to men, who support it by a margin of 47% to 38%.

The Legislative Research Council estimated that if Amendment H passes, an average of more than 50,000 additional ballots would be needed every two years to meet voter demand for primaries.

It’s not clear whether greater involvement will bring more political balance to South Dakota, where no Democratic candidate has won statewide elections since 2008.

“If there is a sense that a Republican is going to win anyway, (open primaries) create a strange incentive for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to vote for a moderate Republican, essentially strengthening one party’s control,” Hellwege said . “We already know that Democrats are losing ground and financial support in the state, and this could make that even worse.”

Stronger opposition is expected

Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy conducted the survey from May 10 to 13. Interviewees were randomly selected from a telephone voter registration list that included both landline and mobile phone numbers. Quotas were assigned to represent voter registration by county. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Because a proposed abortion amendment in South Dakota attracted the most controversy and media attention, open primaries mostly flew under the radar during the signature gathering and certification process.

Among those opposed was South Dakota Freedom Caucus chairman Aaron Aylward, a state representative from Harrisburg, who told News Watch the proposal would essentially create “two general elections in South Dakota.”

Early opposition also came from South Dakota Republican Party Chairman John Wiik and U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, who told News Watch that “our current primary system has served us well.”

Now that the primaries are over and Amendment H has been approved for a vote, more sparks are expected to fly.

Aberdeen businessman Toby Doeden, whose Dakota First PAC was involved in supporting more conservative Republicans against the enemies of the establishment in the primaries, said on Facebook that “it is time to refocus and re-energize and will work on issues such as the radical voting initiatives that are planned for November. .”

Doeden, who did not respond to an interview request from News Watch, cited abortion and overt primary amendments as his group’s two main targets.

“We would not be surprised if we face opposition to our proposal to allow all voters to vote,” Kirby said when asked about the Dakota First effort. “Some people like the system where 17% of South Dakota voters can decide the outcomes. We do not.”

‘We have a big job ahead of us’

Other responses in the News Watch/Chiesman survey revealed serious concerns among South Dakota voters about American democracy and the integrity of its election systems.

More than six-in-ten South Dakotans said they were dissatisfied with the way democracy works in the United States, including 32% who said they were “very dissatisfied.” In terms of party affiliation, 41% of Republicans, 32% of independents and 13% of Democrats said they were very dissatisfied.

Regarding the recent elections, 74% of respondents said they accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, with clear party differences. While 96% of Democrats and 88% of independents said they accepted President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, 58% of Republicans said they did.

“It is not unusual for people with a party label to disagree more with results that do not reflect their preferences,” Hellwege said. “But here we see it goes further than that, with Republicans in particular less likely to believe not only in the accuracy of election results, but in democracy itself as a system.”

Citizen groups such as the South Dakota Canvassing have boosted electoral activism in the state by repeating accusations from conservative media and demanding proof of secure systems, despite no evidence of substantial voter fraud in a state that Trump won by 26 points in 2020.

Asked in the poll about the most recent 2022 election, only 31% of Republicans said they were confident the results had been counted accurately, compared to 97% of Democrats and 75% of independents.

“These are registered voters – that’s the more engaged population,” Hellwege said. “Election administrators, elected officials, practitioners and academics have a big job ahead of us to restore confidence in the accuracy of elections. Scientific research has convincingly shown that elections are accurate and free of fraud. We can be confident in the results. And yet even the more committed registered voters don’t believe us. We have to do more.”

Counties with key races had better turnout

Election research in South Dakota has shown that when voters are invested in a specific issue or contest, they go to the polls.

Part of the reason for the low turnout in 2024 was that the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were already known, and there were no U.S. Senate or U.S. House primaries to pique voter interest.

In 2008, when the Democratic presidential primaries were still raging between eventual winner Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, voter turnout in South Dakota was 37%, with 51% among Democrats.

This year, the June 4 primaries included some examples where local election issues boosted participation in certain counties:

  • In Davison County, where the 41% turnout was among the highest in the state, Mitchell voters weighed in on a competitive election for mayor and a bond issue related to possible improvements to Lake Mitchell. Both election results were close enough to trigger a possible recount.

  • Also among the counties with the highest turnout was Gregory (39%), where the vote included an initiated measure on whether elections should be counted by hand only with paper ballots, without electronic voting equipment or tabulators. Voters rejected the measure, as did voters in Tripp and Haakon counties, where turnout was 37% and 34%, respectively.

Haakon County Auditor Stacy Pinner told News Watch she was encouraged by the level of community involvement in the hand counting issue, as well as the outcome.

“The results showed that our citizens have confidence in the way elections are conducted in Haakon County,” she said.

Three states use the top two primaries

Supporters of open primaries believe Amendment H can bring that level of civic engagement to candidate elections for state, legislative and county offices.

Although nearly half of the states have some form of open primary system, only three currently use a top two primary system, as proposed for South Dakota.

California and Washington use the top two primaries (including party labels) in races other than presidential contests, while Nebraska uses a nonpartisan primary for state legislative races as part of the unicameral legislature.

But Kirby points out that South Dakota’s primary system is the least accessible to unaffiliated voters among neighboring states.

“Iowa and Wyoming allow independents to vote in both major party primaries,” he said. “And in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, voters do not designate a party when they register. They choose which party they want to vote for primarily when they get to the polls. Independent voters in all our neighboring states have a meaningful voice in their primaries. Not so in South Dakota.”

This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, an independent, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at and sign up for an email every few days to receive stories as they are published. Contact Stu Whitney at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Poll: Majority of South Dakotans want new primary system