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Guest Column: Weiland and Samuelson Pitch Open Nonpartisan Primary Initiative

With the initiative petition deadline little more than three weeks away, Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson send the following pitch for their “Nonpartisan Democracy Amendment,” a proposal that would overhaul our primary election system thus:

  1. All candidates for partisan office—from Congress down to county commissioner and sheriff—would have their names placed on a single primary ballot, without any party designation.
  2. All voters—Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other—would get to vote on the same primary ballot.
  3. The top two vote-getters on the primary ballot advance to the general election. (In races like State House, where voters are filling more than one seat, the number of candidates advancing to the general election will be double the number of seats available.)

Why is that plan a good idea? Here’s Weiland and Samuelson’s answer:

It was George Washington who wisely warned, in his Farewell Address, of the “baneful effects” of political partisanship, which “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasional riot and insurrection…”

Washington, the man, was prescient; at the same time that Washington, the city named after him, plummets into chaos. The House seems unable to even name a new Speaker, the Federal Government may soon shut down again, congressional approval is at an all-time low, voter turnout in the last election was its lowest in seven decades, a recent Pew survey found that between half and two-thirds of consistently conservative Republicans and Democrats view each other not just as wrong, but as actual threats to the nation’s well-being. Our country is devolving into warring tribes, and little is getting done.

So is there a solution?

It’s clear that attempting to reform a partisan-riven, gridlocked Congress is a fools-errand–the only initial step that makes sense is to push reform in the states first, and give Congress no other choice but to follow.

Nebraska has shown the path—in 1934, a successful ballot initiative removed partisan identification from its state legislative elections. Unlike every other state, if you run for the legislature in Nebraska you do so as an individual—there is no designation of your political party, and so your party registration is irrelevant. As a beneficial consequence, Nebraska’s legislature isn’t organized on a partisan basis, there are no party caucuses, no party bosses who must be obeyed, and legislators are chosen to lead on their own merits, not on the strength of their respective political party. In fact, in the 2014 session of the Nebraska Legislature (which was composed of an overwhelming majority of registered Republicans), eight of the 14 legislative committees were chaired by registered Democrats, five by Republicans, and one by an Independent—it’s truly a meritocracy.

And just try this thought experiment: would anyone describe the U.S. Congress as a meritocracy? Does anyone really believe that a non-partisan Congress would be led by it’s currently leaders? The question, unfortunately, answers itself.

We believe that most voters are more than ready to try something new, and our organization, TakeItBack.Org, is gathering signatures to put the South Dakota Nonpartisan Democracy Amendment on the 2016 South Dakota general election ballot. If a majority votes for the initiative, as we expect (it was favored 71%-26% in a June PPP poll), it’s likely that other states—especially those in which ballot initiatives are allowed—will follow.

Could Congress eventually follow suit? Yes, it could, and it’s now time for the states to show the way.

Rick Weiland is a businessman in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and former candidate for the U.S. Senate; Drey Samuelson was Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Tim Johnson for his 28-year congressional career. They are the co-founders of TakeitBack.org.

The open nonpartisan primary offers the chance for more South Dakotans to participate in electing their leaders, but as we discussed in August, this proposal may put Independent and third-party candidates at a greater disadvantage than under the current system. Weiland and Samuelson see an advantage for Independents, as shown by the ascent of an Independent to committee chair-ship in Nebraska’s nonpartisan system.

With three weeks to go, and with those advantages and disadvantages, are you eager to see the open nonpartisan primary initiative make the ballot?

23 Comments

  1. 96Tears 2015-10-16 09:32

    Devolved is the right word. Just look at Pierre to see how hyper partisan control can reduce the intellect and quality of governance. Only Shantel Krebs stands as a model of competent governance because she appears immune to the extremist view that runs every office from the governor to our ridiculous pack of jackals we call the legislature.

    Speaking of devolved, I’m sure this is another idea that is good for South Dakota that will be opposed with illogical reasoning by District 3’s elected hacks.

    I do prefer non-partisan governance, especially in this state. If that can’t happen, then I hope the state has the wisdom to remove redistricting from being rigged behind closed doors by the SDGOP. The legislature will continue being populated by dullards as long as the hyper partisan control of state governance exists.

  2. mike from iowa 2015-10-16 09:39

    If people get tired of initiatives on ballots and start checking “no” because of the amount of time it takes,wouldn’t that same principle apply here? How would the names be arranged? If the main offices are listed at the top,wouldn’t it be likely the others lower on the list get less scrutiny and a better chance to be left blank?

  3. drey samuelson 2015-10-16 11:40

    Cory–the reason to support the nonpartisan election initiative is because, as the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature has proven over eight decades, legislatures work better when legislators aren’t divided by partisan considerations and work together for the good of the state. Yes, if the initiative passes then Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, etc. won’t nominate candidates, but that is a small price to pay (if it’s any price at all) for eliminating the poisonous partisanship that plagues our Legislatures and Congress. To give one example, as you have very ably pointed out in post after post, the South Dakota Legislature’s non-investigation of the EB-5 scandal (which some estimates say cost the State over $100 milllion) was a joke–if we can substantially change the way the SD Legislature works for the better, then eliminating partisan nominations is a small price to pay, at least in my view.

  4. Bill Fleming 2015-10-16 12:04

    I like the idea, but it’s kind of hard to explain, especially to people just barely interested in politics. A short, easy to understand animated video (like a sesame street cartoon) that models how it would work at the ballot box would really help sell this thing. Could be a great GOTV tool for everybody, and definitely a good approach for those who believe in democracy.

  5. moses 2015-10-16 12:21

    great idea

  6. 96Tears 2015-10-16 12:43

    Eliminate party bosses and party politics from polluting your state government in Pierre. Roll the headlines from EB-5, MCEC and other scandals. Roll the goofy ideas that waste time in Pierre and in Washington. Ask folks if they think it’s time their state and federal governments start working for them. This is a great populist idea that should appeal to Ds, Rs and Is.

  7. larry kurtz 2015-10-16 12:46

    Anyone believing SDGOP will relinquish their lip lock on the love muscle of power in Pierre is delusional.

  8. jerry 2015-10-16 13:19

    Why would the Hole in the Wall Gang ever make any kind of concession to citizens of South Dakota? The SDGOP has the money, has the votes and has the platform to continue their one party rule, why would they endanger that? The plan sounds good to the ear of those of us who long for law and order in South Dakota, but corruption pays a helluva lot better than doing the right thing. If you get caught, someone will come along and eliminate you to keep it quiet.

  9. Ben Cerwinske 2015-10-16 19:28

    Not putting party affiliation on there might unnecessarily antagonize Republican voters who could see it as an attempt to deceive people. Granted, if someone’s voting, then they should do their homework. Including party affiliation and allowing everyone to vote would be a better compromise. Even so, I will likely support this initiative.

  10. mike from iowa 2015-10-16 19:42

    Why would wingnuts surrender a sure thing?

  11. moses 2015-10-16 19:56

    Hey Cory when is our STATE Auditor going to investigate this thing at Platte or not his job.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-17 11:28

    Bill, sounds like it’s time for Rick & Drey, Steve & Steve, Farmers Union, and the rest of us who’ll be pushing ballot measures next year to buy some cute puppets and start making YouTube content. I’ll get Elmo (or something similarly cute) to shout, “18, 19, 20, NO!”

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-17 12:37

    Thanks for the support, Ben! I understand the argument that stripping party affiliation from the ballot sounds like an effort to trick Republicans into voting for Democrats. (96, when will we hear Al Novstrup telling us that Republicans will use the law to trick Democrats? But let us not forget that Democrats are harder to trick.)

    But let’s look at it this way: We don’t use the ballot to label candidates in any other way. Why should party affiliation enjoy such a place of privilege on the ballot? If party labels are meant to inform voters, couldn’t we argue that other labels might inform voters even more? If we should include party label on the ballot, should we not also include informative details like annual income? Profession? Economic philosophy (capitalist/socialist)? Positions on specific issues?

    Folks like Stace Nelson and Gordon Howie would argue that removing party labels from the ballot would get rid of some false advertising, stopping RINOs from benefiting from a popular party designation they don’t deserve. When I start citing hypothetical Stace and Gordon to support an argument, I should get nervous, but might they have a point?

  14. Ben Cerwinske 2015-10-17 15:29

    All good points. Withholding party affiliation is fine with me, but the initiative might be more difficult to pass if people suspect an effort to deceive (even if that’s not the intent).

  15. mike from iowa 2015-10-17 15:59

    Instead of party labels why not truth in advertising labels. Wingnuts are anti-workers,anti-women,anti-children,anti health care,anti taxes on people with excess income, anti everything. Their only pro argument is more money for the koch bros. It still wouldn’t prevent people from voting for wingnuts,but might prove they can’t read and comprehend and therefore should not be allowed to vote.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-18 09:03

    Permit me another moment of verbal pickiness, Ben: the proposed amendment doesn’t necessarily “withhold” party affiliation. We’re talking about choosing what information the state places on ballots. This amendment takes the position that we aren’t electing Republicans, Democrats, or other party members; we are electing citizens, individuals.

    Consider also that we make a seemingly arbitrary decision not to label candidates for city commission and school board as members of certain political parties. Cities and school boards aren’t “withholding” information. Those governments are simply saying, “What you need to know for the purpose of this ballot are the names of the people seeking to serve.”

    I do agree that we don’t want to trick anyone. I won’t campaign for any candidate or ballot measure that must rely on hiding his/her/its full nature and intent to win an election. But if not printing party affiliation constituted withholding information from voters, couldn’t we say the same about city and school board elections? Couldn’t we say the same about not printing issue statements on the ballot? Suppose I run for office. I don’t mind having “Democrat” next to my name. But I think it might be even more important for voters to know that I once advocated a 100% tax cut for my constituents in the Lake Herman Sanitary District. That single issue could encapsulate my philosophy of “smart, necessary government, not big government.”

    What if instead of party labels, we allowed inclusion on the ballot of three bullet points for and three bullet points against each candidate, like the proponent and opponent statements that the Secretary of State solicits and publishes for each ballot question?

    Or better yet, instead of cluttering the ballot with all that information, what if we simply equip every polling booth with an Internet terminal with hyperlinks to the websites of every candidate and ballot question committee?

  17. mike from iowa 2015-10-18 09:30

    Cory,I guarantee if you put internet access in voting terminals wingnuts would fill them up with the world’s slowest readers so no one else gets to vote. Just another public service compliments of the Make Democracy Go Away Party.

  18. mike from iowa 2015-10-18 09:32

    The puppet needed for numbers is the Count. Looks like Dracula from Sesame Street.

  19. Ben Cerwinske 2015-10-18 10:16

    You’d find no argument from me Cory. All valid points. I’m just looking at it from the perspective of someone who might be on the fence.

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-18 10:29

    I appreciate your ability to look from multiple perspectives, Ben. The line you use will be a good line that the opponents can use to scare folks off the fence and into the “No” camp. And some Dems will go with them, not because they believe that the proposal is trying to deceive anyone, but because the proposal further weakens the party brand.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-18 10:30

    Mike, good point about slow readers. Maybe we can put those information terminals outside each polling place. Study first, at your leisure, take notes, then get in line for a ballot.

    And how many of us—half? two-thirds?—are already walking into the polling booth with our own pocket Internet terminals?

  22. Tasiyagnunpa 2015-10-18 18:23

    Awesome! So get to your nearest petition circulator and sign folks! Deadline is looming.

  23. leslie 2015-10-22 06:02

    if you haven’t been frightened away by lisa’s “jackley enabled” 18% confusion campaign

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