Electoral competition in a one-party state

by Joe Kirby

A fourth-generation South Dakotan and a lifelong Republican, I was once again disappointed this month when 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 such as 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 approved through initiatives in 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 all neglected.

My state’s election system 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 is the only election that matters. The winner of the Republican nomination is the winner of the general election almost every time. But only registered Republicans may participate in the GOP contest, even though our state’s “members only” primaries 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 GOP number is inflated somewhat by independents — and even Democrats who plug their noses and join a party they do not support just so they can exercise a meaningful vote. Still, while Republican-affiliated voters make up less than half the electorate of the state, they get to call all the shots.

And that includes redrawing legislative districts every 10 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 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 at all or only a token competitor in the general election. But the Republican primaries themselves are also uncompetitive. The GOP nominees for statewide office have often faced only nominal opposition in the primary, because party leaders make sure the fix is in.

And once those candidates cruise to victory and enter office, those same leaders ensure these officials hew close to the party agenda or else face the threat of a well-financed and more dogmatic opponent in the next primary.

The Republicans have even reduced the right of voters to use the state’s 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.

So it looks like they not only don’t want competition, they also don’t trust the people.

A good recent example is how Gov. Kristi Noem and the Legislature mounted attacks this spring on the medical and recreational legalizations of marijuana — both approved overwhelmingly by the voters in November.

Monopolies, whether they are 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 we would necessarily agree with them, but because they would challenge our Republican Party to think deeper and do better. And there are proposed reforms that would go a long way toward achieving 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 elections and other alternative voting systems allow voters to express their preferences more accurately — allowing voters to avoid the either/or choice among sometimes repugnant options. There are models of nonpartisan 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. Their platform expresses support for the free enterprise system and the benefits of capitalism. 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.

Joe Kirby is a retired insurance company executive in South Dakota and a volunteer spokesman for Open Primaries, which advocates for allowing all voters to participate in nominating elections. An earlier version of this piece was first published in the Rapid City Journal.