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Arnold Schwarzenegger Endorses Open Non-Partisan Primaries in South Dakota

Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t endorsed his party’s Presidential nominee (he voted for John Kasich and appointed to state court Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, against whom Donald Trump has lodged racist attacks). But the former bodybuilder and California governor has endorsed South Dakota’s Amendment V, the open non-partisan primary proposal.

Schwarzenegger writes in today’s Rapid City Journal that moving to nonpartisan primaries played a key role in tempering partisanship and extremism in California politics:

Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks up about South Dakota politics!
Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks up about South Dakota politics!

I led a reform effort, partnering with a diverse group of political leaders, good government groups and the business community. The centerpiece of that reform battle was making our elections nonpartisan, so that the voters had the power, not the parties and special interests. That is what Amendment V would do for South Dakota and what the nonpartisan Legislature has done for Nebraska for nearly 80 years.

We were right. As a result of our leadership and the will of the voters, nonpartisan elections have transformed California. The Lucy Burns Institute now rates our elections as the most competitive in America (Nebraska is a close second).

All voters — including independents — now participate equally and get to vote for the candidate of their choice, not the political party’s choice. This competition for all voters produces legislators who govern for all the people, not the parties and special interests.

In a study just released by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, we found that many candidates running for the Legislature have become more moderate and more interested in appealing to voters across party lines since the change. And we are regaining the people’s trust, with the Legislature’s approval rating soaring from just 12 percent of voters before the change to 44 percent today [Arnold Schwarzenegger, “SD Can Terminate Partisanship,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.06.12].

Schwarzenegger can point to more moderate candidates and more competitive elections. However, since passage of the Top Two Primaries Act in 2010, voter turnout has remained flat while primary participation has declined.

Like Amendment V, California’s top-two primary doesn’t apply to the Presidential primary. California primary turnout exceeded expectations this year (and at 49% blew away South Dakota’s measly 22%), but as in South Dakota, turnout was lower than in the 2008 Obama/Clinton primary.

Changing South Dakota’s primary to mirror California’s top-two system doesn’t guarantee more people will participate in the process. But it does guarantee that all South Dakotans can participate in the election of all of their elected officials. For example, today’s Aberdeen American News editorial laments the District 23 House race, where Republicans alone chose their Representatives last week:

The chilling effect of uncontested races was summed up in this passage from our District 23 wrap-up story in Wednesday’s paper:

“Because the Republican primary in South Dakota is closed and only members of the GOP could cast ballots, not everyone in the district had an opportunity to vote for their Pierre representatives.”

Think about that. Many races were decided in Tuesday’s primaries, meaning some voters didn’t have the choice to vote for or against the candidates of their choosing. They will be represented in Pierre in January by men or women who have never appeared on their ballots [editorial, Aberdeen American News, 2016.06.12].

The same can be said of District 15, where Republican voters were disenfranchised by the absence of a Republican candidate for State Senate, and Democrats and Independents alone decided that Reynold Nesiba shold be their next Senator. The same has occurred in the last three elections in District 31, where only Republicans have run for Legislature, and only Republicans have gotten to vote for their Pierre representation.

Amendment V would end those exclusions, allowing every voter, regardless of party affiliation, to participate in selecting their legislators, regardless of whether their party fields a candidate. Whether more people will participate in primaries, Amendment V makes more participation possible. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I agree that allowing that participation is good for democracy.


  1. Jason Olson 2016-06-12 13:49

    Hi Cory,

    As a leader of a independent voter group who partnered with Governor Schwarzenegger and a reform coalition to pass nonpartisan elections in California (what we call the top two open primary), I need to point out several things about California’s turnout under the new system:
    1. In 2008 CA “jumped the line” and move our primary up to Super Tuesday on February 5th, making your comparison unfair and frankly making our 49% turnout this year quite impressive.
    2. While it’s true CA’s turnout was down in 2012 & 2014, you are missing the context. Nationally turnout was down around the country in these elections, but California decreased by the one of the lowest amounts.
    3. More context: California has been in the top 10 for turnout for quite some time, and independent voters who could now fully participate in elections actually outperformed party voters.
    4. The most important thing about nonpartisan elections is that all voters get to participate, including the 4+ million independents in California.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-06-12 15:34

    Valid historical point, Jason! The different 2008 date makes comparisons problematic. That spike is apparent in the following chart from a link above:

    California voter turnout 2000–2014

    Alas, also apparent is that continued decline in turnout. I appreciate the possibility that turnout is decreasing more slowly in California than in other states, and I’m all for Independents and all other voters having as much opportunity to participate in elections as possible. But seeing voter turnout continue to decline makes me hesitate to sell Amendment V as a way to increase turnout. Amendment V and similar open primary reforms may be necessary, but they aren’t sufficient to re-engage the electorate. What else do we need to do to get people back to the polls?

  3. drey samuelson 2016-06-12 15:46

    And it’s also worth noting that Nebraska, which has had an almost identical initiative in effect for 80 years, has a legislature which isn’t controlled by party bosses, which means that:

    1. Legislators are free to vote their own views, as opposed to the views of their political party chairman.
    2. Legislators from both parties (or no party, for that matter) can and do become committee chairs, so leadership positions aren’t limited just to the party in the majority.
    3. Legislators have no fear of retribution for votes against the party line, as there is no party line, and no mechanism exists to punish them.
    4. Since no political party controls the Nebraska Legislature, effective checks and balances actually exist (as opposed to the South Dakota Legislature).

    The truth is that Amendment V is much fairer to the voters, and leads to much better governance, as well.

  4. MikeSD1 2016-06-12 16:05

    Our politics are broken in this country. The political establishment in both parties are addicted to money and seem almost to enjoy shutting tens of millions of voters out of the process. This proposal is a way to make our legislators at the state and federal level more accountable to the people and less to their partisan bosses like Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Reince Preibus. I’m tired of stuffed suits who are more concerned about their parties winning than our country winning. Progressives should get behind this proposal and fight hard to pass it.

  5. mike from iowa 2016-06-12 16:07

    The truth is that Amendment V is much fairer to the voters, and leads to much better governance, as well.

    Likely means this measure will bite the dust on the lone prairie of Pierre. Fair is in the eye of the gerrymandered majority.

  6. Tim 2016-06-12 16:41

    “Arnold Schwarzenegger and I agree that allowing that participation is good for democracy.”

    This is not something SD Republicans are interested in. As November approaches, I would expect RW propaganda to ramp up on this.

  7. Chris S. 2016-06-12 18:33

    Whatever your opinion of the amendment, “Arnold Schwarzenneger endorses it” is one of the least compelling reasons to support anything.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-06-13 06:54

    Chris, without speaking to Schwarzenegger’s political wisdom, I can say that the mere fact that he would involve himself in a South Dakota ballot measure is noteworthy. How often does a prominent political figure or movie star find any issue in South Dakota worth not just commenting on, but writing a full op-ed on?

  9. Good Sense 2016-06-14 15:02

    Who cares what Arnold, the woman abuser, says about SD?

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-06-14 16:31

    I’ll keep that in mind, GS, when Arnold backs an issue you support.

    Schwarzenegger has plenty of issues. But the fact that a nationally known figure takes time to advocate a South Dakota ballot measure indicates Amendment V could draw some really interesting debate this year, not to mention campaign spending, perhaps from interested parties on both sides.

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