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Local Elections Plagued with Low Turnout

Turnout in local elections suggests democracy is losing to apathy:

  • Rapid City school election: 33.6% [Update 12:25 CDT: Pennington County election supervisor Lori Severson tells me there are 56,915 active voters eligible to vote in Rapid City school elections. 19,095 voted yesterday on the opt-out.]
  • Mitchell city and school election: 26%. (“I am happy with the voter turnout,” Mitchell City Finance Officer Michelle Bathke tells the Mitchell Daily Republic. “Compared to previous years, it is right about average, and that’s OK.” One 46-year Mitchelll resident told KELO-TV that the “crowds” at the polls “amazing.”)
  • Meade school board election: 5.9% (with seven people vying for three seats).
  • Aberdeen school board election: 3.5% (four candidates competing for two seats).

Hectoring the electorate doesn’t win votes, but really, neighbors? Is who runs the Aberdeen school district so inconsequential that only 700-some people show up to cast a vote in a school district with 20,000 voters? In Rapid City, amidst contentious debates over mayoral candidates and school finance, can two thirds of voters justify shrugging?

South Dakota has its problems with voting rights, but voting in the above elections wasn’t that inconvenient. Folks could stop by the courthouse any weekday since mid-April to cast a vote.

I predicate my circulation of the petition to refer Senate Bill 69 on the basic principle that a law that takes away our choices in elections is bad. These low turnout numbers indicate that, at the local level, a large majority of South Dakotans don’t care if they have choices on the ballot. It looks like I need to knock on more doors and remind people of one basic principle:

Democracy—use it or lose it.


  1. El Rayo X 2015-06-03 07:57

    If voter turn out gets any lower, we are at risk of being invaded by some country that wants to bring us western democracy.

  2. Craig 2015-06-03 08:38

    Turnout was low as it always is for local elections, but that didn’t stop people from making a very decisive decision in some cases.

    Look at the Mitchell School Board race for example. Our friend Tara garnered a total of 915 votes while her two challengers each had twice that amount. Ouch.

    Sibson fared slightly better with finishing second in a three way race. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon who you ask), his total was still 55% less than the winner.

    Needless to say, it appears the “also rans” in Mitchell were once again sent away without a victory. I’d like to think it would be a learning opportunity, but history has shown me that instead of taking it as a sign, they each will immediatley start complaining about Neo-this, Neo-that, a boys club, oligarchy, ruling class, etc. etc. while trying to pretend winning wasn’t as important as running to get the “truth” out there. If that’s the case, clearly the voters reject Sibson’s and Tara’s version of the ‘truth’.

    The mayoral race was much closer, so we can’t draw conclusions about people being upset with the status quo but rather people just having very strong opinions on which candidates they DON’T want in office. And so it goes.

    Sort of makes you wonder what it would take to really get the electorate out in force. The Mitchell Fine Arts Center, contrary to what some have suggested, doesn’t seem to be nearly as controversial in the eyes of the voters.

  3. larry kurtz 2015-06-03 09:12

    Curious whether low turnout in these towns is evidence of a high number of disaffected people who live at the margins and lead hardscrabble, dreary existences or if candidates are just so pathetic that voters blow off the process.

  4. Nick Nemec 2015-06-03 09:13

    Extreme low voter turn out in school board and municipal elections is how crazy, fringe groups get people into office. Then those people get elected to higher office based on their experience serving on local boards.

  5. Lynn 2015-06-03 09:23

    Regarding the elections in Mitchell I hope that Mayor elect Toomey does not go to far in his “campaign to cut spending” that could jeopardize the momentum in growth Mitchell has benefited from partly due to the hard work of Mayor Ken Tracy. The serious lack of quality affordable homes in Mitchell needs to be addressed and will hamper growth. Code enforcement is still very weak in dealing with slumlords along with other challenges ahead for the city.

    With the Mitchell School Board the voters once again denied Tara Volesky and Steve Sibson an elected office position. Steve Sibson stated that he was going to use the 1 year school board position to launch another run for the legislature in 2016. Hopefully he realizes he will be defeated again in that race by an even wider margin.

    As Craig suggested above hopefully they will learn from their defeat and in a positive way there are other ways they can contribute by volunteering. There are so many organizations and efforts in our communities that need volunteers and one can be blessed to see a difference made in person.

  6. tara volesky 2015-06-03 11:00

    Well Mitchell should not complain when their property taxes keep going up. Heck, half the people didn’t even know there was an election. Like I said the people who should vote, don’t. Just look at the state of SD and see who is in charge. Dr. Graves got his FAC while letting the HS go to hell. Don’t complain about teacher salaries either. The people in charge are a reflection of the voters. The voters are the ones who keep the establishment in charge. Jerry Toomey will the big game changer in all of this. The good ole boys just took a big hit. I am very thankful with only a 26% turnout for a Mayor’s, city council and 6 candidates for school board race that Jerry Toomey pulled it out. The powers that be when after him full force. Big win for the people of Mitchell. Usually with that low of turnout the fringe usually wins. Congratulations to Dr. Joe Graves, because now he doesn’t have to answer any questions. Nice guy, just don’t agree with his policies.

  7. tara volesky 2015-06-03 11:58

    I will refer all comments to a man that knows more about education in Mitchell than all of us combined, former state Senator and past Mitchell school board member Rod Hall. Dr. Joe Graves worked for him. I believe Mr. Hall said it all. Thanks Rod.

  8. Craig 2015-06-03 11:58


    “good ole boys”

    “powers that be”

    Really Tara? You are nothing if not predictable.

    Listen – we can complain about voter turnout, but nobody that cares about their city or cares about the leadership can say they didn’t know there was an election happening. Pick up a newspaper, read a blog, turn on the television, listen to the radio, or open your eyes and notice the plethora of signs all around town and you couldn’t miss it! Therefore if someone says they didn’t know about the election these are the exact people who shouldn’t vote because they are woefully uninformed. If they don’t know about the election, then surely they don’t know about the issues or the candidates and therefore they should stay home on election day.

    I’m sure Mitchell will be just fine. They elected the leaders that had the best message. They elected people who they felt could lead them and those who are most likely to have a positive impact. Nobody will get everything they want, but democracy works when you let it.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-03 12:03

    The Aberdeen American News helps prove my point about the danger of hectoring the voters. AAN puts up an editorial saying Aberdeen voters failed a basic civics test yesterday by having lower turnout for the school board election than the uncontested city council election. Within half an hour, their Facebook post on that topic lights up with comments blaming AAN for not covering the election and vowing never to buy the paper again.

    These reactions suggest two solutions: (1) We need to move voting online, where people can more conveniently register their opinion, and (2) we need a candidate in each race to rile up voters by calling them failures. ; – )

  10. Lynn 2015-06-03 12:14


    How many campaigns have you managed besides your own? What was the common outcome? They all resulted in an overwhelming defeat! Don’t you feel it’s time to move on and try to contribute in a different way?

    Please stop the blaming and excuses! The election is over! Think of the non-profit organizations in Mitchell that would very be grateful for the other skills you have to offer.

  11. Lynn 2015-06-03 12:52


    Blaming the Aberdeen American News for their own failure is a cop out. With my periodic visits to Aberdeen candidate forums have been on public access TV though they would probably need a subscription to cable to view. I’m not sure about broadcast. It’s a shared responsibility to be informed citizens in regards to government. Heck! There are long time residents in the Aberdeen area that don’t know about EB-5, that Aberdeen even has a beef plant or many news related stories local, statewide or nationally. Many don’t watch the news or get a paper. 3.5% voter turnout is shockingly scary!

  12. tara volesky 2015-06-03 13:01

    No excuses Lynn and Craig. Just stating facts. I feel very good, instead of complaining I did something about it. Unfortunately 76% of the electorate stayed home. Cory I agree with you 100% with your comment about the AAN. Facts are facts folks. It’s starts locally and progresses to the state level, then to Congress. One party rule at all levels in SD. Independent Bernie Sanders got 2% when he ran for Legislature and a whopping 1% when he ran for Governor. I think he lost 4 races before he won Mayor by 12 votes. Look at him now. I will never call anyone a failure for putting themselves on the line. You won’t even reveal who you are. Need I say more. I am wasting my time responding to no names who are more interested in pettiness than issues.

  13. Wayne B. 2015-06-03 13:11

    I find it frustrating how newspapers don’t tell readers HOW they can participate. Something as simple as a direction to the SOS website to find out your polling location, and the date of the election is vital information. I had to do some legwork to find out about elections in my new district after our move.

    I’ll echo Craig, though. I want engaged, educated, informed voter participation. I don’t want thoughtless checking of boxes.

  14. Craig 2015-06-03 14:08

    “I am wasting my time responding to no names who are more interested in pettiness than issues.”

    And yet we have seen, time and time again, that you are more than willing to use insults and name calling while complaining that you don’t have people’s full names. That seems fairly petty to me, but don’t let me stop you from talking about issues.

    Frankly I don’t care if you respond to me or not as that isn’t why I post. Feel free to gloss over any of my comments as I have never asked you to engage me. I’m just stating an opinion and offering advice. When 80% of the electorate votes against you, it should be a wake-up call, and although comparing yourself to Bernie Sanders might make you feel better about your loss, it isn’t a realistic comparison.

    I admire the fact you ran Tara – nobody can take that away from you. However I believe you need to state clearly defined positions that differentiate yourself from your opponents. Stating what you are NOT for is fine, but people need specifics. Syaing what you ARE for is better, but again we need specifics. Someone claiming to support the teachers and who wants to raise teacher pay needs a plan in place to do so and it needs to be practical, feasible, and realisitic (a school board member cannot implement an income tax nor can they raise property taxes to subsidize teacher pay).

    Otherwise, stating a problem without offering a viable solution is just more pandering with no substance. Simply stating you wanted to shake things up doesn’t instill confidence that you are prepared for the job you are running for. The voters aren’t ignorant and can only make decisions based upon the limited information they have available, so we can’t blame the voters when thing don’t go our way.

  15. jerry 2015-06-03 15:19

    Democracy has left the building with all of us being the boot that kicked it out. We are a nation that preemptive war without congressional approval, is the norm. We are a nation that denies habeas corpus, in particular, those in Guantanamo Bay, what a disgrace unless you have kicked democracy to the side of the road. We are a nation that denies the rights of all of its citizens due process as we shoot to kill or find some other means of murdering suspects or sometimes children by a militarized police force. Frankly, I am surprised that there were that many to show up to vote for the same thing they had before.

  16. Donald Pay 2015-06-03 16:54

    I wouldn’t have voted for Tara or Sibby, but I do appreciate and honor their efforts to advance their ideas, and be part of the system to seek peaceful change. I lost an election to the school board, too, putting forth what I thought were some good ideas. It hurts when you lose, but you know you gave people a choice. That’s something to be proud of.

    I’m for mandatory voting, because I look at voting as a duty to make the government truly representative. When only a fraction of the people vote, we really can’t have a representative democratic republic. I always vote, but I feel my vote is devalued when other people don’t vote. Everyone should have to show up at the polls and submit a ballot. If people don’t want to vote for the candidates listed they can leave the ballot blank.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2015-06-03 16:57

    Rapid City is predominately republican, it could be that the party as whole was satisfied with either republican candidate.

    Like Steve Allender, much of this city is in denial about racism and find discussing that racism offensive.

    I’m insulted by Allender’s position on racism and more outrage at Rapid City voters that apparently agreed with Allender.

  18. tara volesky 2015-06-03 18:26

    Craig are you one of the big wigs of Mitchell that’s pissed off because your incumbent for Mayor got beat. Hey, if I thought I had a chance to win, I would have advertised. My constituency doesn’t vote, but at least I rattled some cages and I am making a little bit of difference. Status quo is not who I am. I love to fight for the little guy and anti-establishment. Thank God Elizabeth Warren doesn’t live in SD. Hey Cory, when are you going to file the complaint against Pastor Hickey? You can tar and feather him next.

  19. tara volesky 2015-06-03 18:38

    Don’t feel bad Roger, the MDR editorial board shamed all the people in Mitchell that complained but did not vote. Minority rules. Donald, I just hope people start waking up, because it’s those people that don’t vote, they could turn their communities and state around if they did vote. Just ask Rod Hall. Craig, a school board member can’t implement an income tax, but they can sure lobby other school board members and the Legislature. I would not sit back and be silent.

  20. grudznick 2015-06-03 18:42

    I’m with my good friend Mr. C.

    I’m also a fan of Ms. Volesky, and glad she wants to run for things. I still hope her friend Mr. Sibby does run to be one of the legislatures from Mitchell and I wish he would blog here too. I think he could have probably gotten more votes if he was putting his comments out on a blog.

  21. larry kurtz 2015-06-03 18:44

    how the feeding go at the old folks’ home today, grud?

  22. larry kurtz 2015-06-03 18:45

    get some ballots in front of old people with dementia yesterday?

  23. grudznick 2015-06-03 18:46

    I haven’t eaten yet, Lar. But it smells good.

  24. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-03 19:34

    I’d like to see online voting with a 2 week time span. I’d also like to see anyone with a job receive a paid day off to vote. (There are still lots of people who find it difficult to access online.) However, their name has to be on the polling place list that shows they actually did vote. The list of actual voters would be published online after the voting period is over. Someone might vote online after work and still get a paid day off. Fine.

    I don’t think mandatory voting can work Don. Do you have a plan to make it work without violating the constitution? Or are you suggesting an amendment?

  25. mike from iowa 2015-06-03 19:54

    Deb-tasterful and long overdue knock on the Bee-Gees a couple days ago. You’re funny. :)

  26. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-03 20:43

    Thanks Mike. I really cannot stand that trio. Ick.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-04 08:36

    Wayne B, I did find it a challenge to find a “where to vote” website. The paper did publish that information, and I was able to find it with some focused Web searching. But I didn’t see an obvious “Election” page on the Aberdeen schools website.

    Also contributing to low awareness was the absence of campaign signs. I didn’t see any yard signs, so folks didn’t have that visual reminder. I don’t think candidates should feel obligated to buy and post signs—if a candidate wants to focus on door-to-door, that’s fine.

    I recall Brad Olson having an ad in the paper asking for votes for school board… but there my vision isn’t wholly reliable: when I scan the paper, I almost entirely tune out the ads, and I generally skip the sports section completely.

  28. Craig 2015-06-04 16:12

    Sorry to burst your assumption bubble Tara, but I’m not a Mitchell “big wig” and in fact I have no opinion on either the current Mayor nor Mayor-elect. I’ve never met either one of them and have no association with either, thus I am not upset at the outcome one bit.

    “Craig, a school board member can’t implement an income tax, but they can sure lobby other school board members and the Legislature.”

    Sure they can… but then again so can an unelected citizen. You don’t need to be a member of the school board to lobby your legislature.

    I know – because I’ve done it. I’ve interacted with numerous elected officials and have met with them individually. It might not be as beneficial to my ego since I don’t have my name on a ballot, but something tells me it is far more effective.

  29. tara volesky 2015-06-04 16:17

    Whatever, no name.

  30. Craig 2015-06-04 16:40

    And yet you continue to engage me even after claiming you wouldn’t. Sort of like how you have promised in the past to leave this blog and not post here.

    You have no credibility Tara. That isn’t anyone’s fault but your own, but I’m guessing much like Annette Bosworth you won’t be taking responsibility for your own actions.

Comments are closed.