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TakeItBack.org Proposes Nonpartisan Top-Two Primary… and Maybe Secret Ballots in Legislature!

Attorney General Marty Jackley yesterday released explanations for not one but two initiated constitutional amendments from Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson, founders of TakeItBack.org. These are the first ballot measures from Weiland and Samuelson’s new initiative organization to see the official light of day.

Interestingly, the measures, as well as AG Jackley’s explanations, are almost identical. Both propose a nonpartisan blanket primary for selecting candidates for all county, state, and federal elected offices, except for President and Vice-President. (The nonpartisan blanket primary is also called jungle, qualifying, top-two, and Louisiana. Preferences, readers?) All candidates would appear on a single primary ballot, without any indication of party affiliation. All registered voters could participate in the primary, regardless of their party affiliation. The top two primary vote-getters would square off in the general election. In races for more than one seat (like State House and some county commission races), the number of candidates advancing to the general would be twice the number of seats at stake.

The top-two primary would require all candidates to kick into high gear in the spring for the primary. Think about last year’s Senate race. Rick Weiland was the only Democrat to run; he didn’t have to wage a primary campaign, and he could let the five Republicans in the race pound on each other until they nominated Mike Rounds. The two Independents, Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie, also skipped the primary and advanced straight to the general election ballot. Under the top-two amendment, Weiland, Pressler, and Howie would all have needed to mobilize their campaigns to attack each other and every Republican candidate in a desperate fight for the number-two spot on the general election ballot behind Mike Rounds. Among other alternate-history speculation on jungle-primary tactics, I’d suggest that that mad scramble would have prompted the hard conservatives on the ballot—Howie, Stace Nelson, Larry Rhoden, and Jason Ravnsborg—to beat Rep. Steve Hickey to the punch in suing to keep Annette Bosworth from making the ballot and siphoning away a precious 5.7% of the vote.

The top-two primary appears to make life harder for Independents and third-party candidates. Where Howie and Pressler last year could go straight to the general election ballot and fight just one major battle, they would have to fight two ballot battles, like everyone else, to win. Ditto for third parties. If past performance held, Independents and third parties would far more rarely make the general election ballot.

The top-two amendment specifies identical petition signature requirements for all candidates based on voter turnout in the previous election for the office they seek. The amendment leaves determination of the signature numbers to the Legislature, so we can’t say for sure whether signature requirements would rise or fall for any given party or Independents. But the Independent deadline would surely be moved up a month from the last Tuesday in April to the last Tuesday in March to line up with partisan candidates’ deadline.

The top-two primary makes life especially harder for candidates for Attorney General, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Public Utilities Commissioner, and Commissioner of School and Public Lands. Right now, parties nominate those candidates at their summer conventions. (Someone remind me: how do Independents run for those offices?) The process goes mostly without trouble, but as we saw last summer, it allows grudge-beating scam artists like Chad Haber to make the statewide ballot by hijacking a third-party convention with fifteen dupes. The top-two amendment would require these second-tier candidates to undergo the petition and primary process as well. That means more shoe leather and more public scrutiny of these state-level candidates.

But notice that if the top-two primary is fully nonpartisan, then petitioning just got easier for party candidates. If any voters can participate in the unified primary, then any voter should be able to sign any petition to nominate any candidate. Democrats won’t have to hunt down only Democrats for signatures; they’ll be able to take any registered voter’s signature, just as we do on ballot measure petitions. So even if the number of signatures that members of certain parties must get goes up (don’t get any bright ideas, Corey Brown), party candidates should at least get a broader field of potential signers.

The amendment does solve one local election problem. Suppose only two candidates stand for sheriff, and they are both from the same party. Current primary rules disenfranchise Democrats and Independents and leave the choice of sheriff to local Republicans (see Lake County, 2006). The same happens at the Legislative level in districts dominated by one party: if only Democrats run in District 1, and if only Republicans run in District 30, more than half of the electorate in each district gets no say in picking their legislators. The top-two primary gives every registered voter a say.

The amendments differ only in one additional proposal: the second amendment requires secret ballots for elections in the Legislature of Speaker of the House, House Speaker Pro Tempore, Senate President Pro Tempore, and all committee chairs and vice chairs. That provision prompts the only difference in the Attorney General’s explanation: in addition to the “substantial re-write of state election laws” that he says the nonpartisan top-two primary will require, A.G. Jackley says the Legislative-secret-ballot amendment “may be challenged and declared invalid under the State Constitution.”

Funny: I didn’t think an amendment to the State Constitution could be declared invalid under the State Constitution. But hey, I guess I’ll get to work on declaring the payday lenders fake 18%-rate-cap amendment unconstitutional, too. And if secret-ballot requirements are good for unions, why not for the Legislature?

The whole concept behind secret ballots is to avoid any possibility of intimidation or threat. I think that’s very important in our system to preserve that secret ballot right [Senator Dave Knudson, in “Unions, Businesses Square off on Ballot Measure,” AP via Rapid City Journal, 2010.09.19].

The secret ballot for Legislative elections seems a separate issue from the top-two primary, but there is a connection. If we elect legislators on a nonpartisan ballot, we may want them to have some more freedom to vote across party lines once they get to Pierre. Secret ballots for Speaker, Pro Tem, and committee leadership would take away one screw that caucus leadership can put to party members and perhaps take partisanship out of some Legislative decisions.

But will Weiland and Samuelson keep that provision? They have two amendments available now to submit to the Secretary of State for approval and circulation. Will they choose their slightly more complicated measure? Or will they decide that a top-two primary is reform enough for now to challenge partisan politics in South Dakota?

15 Comments

  1. Porter Lansing 2015-08-13

    geeky

  2. Porter Lansing 2015-08-13

    Pardon me. I meant to say, “Geeky psephology.” ✔

  3. W R Old Guy 2015-08-13

    Other states have used this system with mixed results. http://ballotpedia.org/Blanket_primary

    It appears it does put the smaller parties at a disadvantage because of the amount of time and money required to be competitive for one of the top slots. There have also been accusations of parties running “fake” candidates to dilute other candidates chances.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-13

    WR: Fake candidates—kind of like the payday lenders’ fake petition?

    I don’t want to make life harder for Independents and third parties, but I like the fact that the top-two primary guarantees that candidates must get a majority vote to take office. Does the Weiland/Samuelson proposal affect Indies and third parties any differently from a runoff requirement on the general election?

  5. 96Tears 2015-08-13

    First reaction: Who will finance the campaign to pass this, how will they explain this in simple and persuasive terms, and why would chronic-voting Republicans want to support something that stops them from controlling every office in South Dakota except a handful of legislative seats?

    Second reaction: Nice concept. Is there a personally compelling reason why South Dakotans who vote will support it?

  6. Spencer 2015-08-13

    You might want to look to California before you decide on whether to support this or not. Frequently, California districts that tilt one way or the other send two candidates of the same party to the general. Guess which party they are most likely to be from in South Dakota? At least with the current system, the Democrats can run phony place holders up until the last minute in an effort to find someone…anyone to run.

  7. 96Tears 2015-08-13

    Good point. If these TakeItBack measures pass and become law, what would the roll of the state Democratic Party and state Republican Party be? Recruit candidates? Raise money (for whom)? Get out the vote (based on what)? It would definitely change the political landscape profoundly.

    One unintended consequence may be the influence of lobbyists and special interest campaign committees. If the party bosses aren’t calling the shots in the State Capitol, does that give lobbyists with deep pockets even greater unfettered access and control?

  8. Bill Fleming 2015-08-13

    I like this idea. It may not help the SD Democratic party (is it even “help-able?”), but it will help preserve democracy in South Dakota.

    And further, as per 96T, it probably won’t hurt the SD Republican party either. It just lets the rest of the voters (aka the majority) confirm which of the top two Repub “appointees” they really want to represent them.

    If both of the top two vote getters are Repubs, so be it. At least the other voters (non-Repubs) will have a choice, which is better than what voters in some districts have now.

  9. Roger Elgersma 2015-08-13

    Even though it is difficult to find a party that one agrees with every issue, I do think the party system does add more organization and united effort to an election than this new idea does. Even though I do not like one party rule, there is some value in having a unified attempt within a party to get things done. Having 105 different agendas in Pierre does not sound like a fast system to pass a law. Two party plus the option of third parties is still democracy.

  10. Kurt Evans 2015-08-13

    Cory asks:
    >“I don’t want to make life harder for Independents and third parties, but I like the fact that the top-two primary guarantees that candidates must get a majority vote to take office. Does the Weiland/Samuelson proposal affect Indies and third parties any differently from a runoff requirement on the general election?”

    Yes, usually by eliminating their candidates before most voters are paying serious attention. Top-two primaries increase the influence of preexisting money and power and decrease the influence of good ideas. A far better (and less expensive) way to guarantee that winners get a majority vote would be to use instant-runoff voting or another ranked voting system in a single nonpartisan November election:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranked_voting_system

  11. Wayne B. 2015-08-14

    I’m a huge fan of removing party affiliation from ballots (and the removal of straight ticket vote check boxes). Let voters do their homework.

    So South Dakota is likely to have a lot of run offs between Republicans… that’s okay. Those two top candidates are going to have to explain how they can best represent all of South Dakota, not just the majority of Republicans in the state.

    Think about it. If you have two Republicans running for Senate. One runs to the hard right and gets those votes. That gives the other the opportunity to tap all those Indies and Dems living in our state, plus some of the more moderate Republicans. Unless they all just decide to stay home.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-14

    Kurt, you make a good point about the danger of eliminating Indies and third parties before voters are paying attention in the general election. But would a top-two primary change voter attitudes and cause them to pay more attention to the primary?

  13. Kurt Evans 2015-08-16

    Cory wrote:
    >“Someone remind me: how do Independents run for those [down-ballot constitutional] offices?”

    I don’t remember, but I was told once, and the requirements were such that I suspected it would never happen.

    >“Kurt, you make a good point about the danger of eliminating Indies and third parties before voters are paying attention in the general election. But would a top-two primary change voter attitudes and cause them to pay more attention to the primary?”

    Some voters would probably pay more attention to the primary, and some would probably pay less, but I doubt any such primary would get nearly as much attention as a general election.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-16

    I’ll accept that assessment, Kurt. I suppose it’s just like TV ratings for sports events: a playoff game won’t get the same ratings as the Super Bowl. A top-two primary means Indies and third parties will have to mobilize sooner and work against more voter apathy. For the Indy who can pull off a surprise second in the primary, the top-two system would be great, giving that Indy Cinderella status in an uncluttered head-to-head battle for five months until the general. But very few Indies will have such good fortune.

    What advantage, if any, do Indies and third-party candidates gain from the nonpartisan aspect of this reform? Does not having the I, L, C, or other letter in front of their names level the playing field for the minor-party candidates versus the Ds and Rs?

  15. Kurt Evans 2015-08-16

    Cory wrote:
    >“For the Indy who can pull off a surprise second in the primary, the top-two system would be great, giving that Indy Cinderella status in an uncluttered head-to-head battle for five months until the general. But very few Indies will have such good fortune.”

    As I suggested in my original comment above (2015-08-13 at 21:52), such good fortune would usually accrue to those with preexisting money and power.

    >“What advantage, if any, do Indies and third-party candidates gain from the nonpartisan aspect of this reform? Does not having the I, L, C, or other letter in front of their names level the playing field for the minor-party candidates versus the Ds and Rs?”

    I’m not sure, but I believe as a matter of principle that the general election ought to stand above party politics in the eyes of the law, regardless of the practical consequences.

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