In his debate with Rick Knobe on Amendment V Thursday evening, aspiring GOP lawyer Will Mortenson said the open nonpartisan primary proposal is a rare effort to take information away from voters. I found this a novel formulation of the transparency argument, saying not just that we’re hiding information but going against some trend toward more information. Knobe rejected this contention, saying voters will still find plenty of information about candidates’ party affiliation from other sources without little Rs, Ds, Cs, Ls, and Is on the ballot.
The Mitchell Daily Republic rejects Mortenson’s transparency contention as well. Where one would expect a media outlet to blow the whistle on any effort to hide information, Thursday’s MDR editorial sounds utterly unconcerned that Amendment V would “hide” any information from voters. Quite to the contrary, the editorial board says removing party affiliation from the ballot will benefit voters and candidates:
Amendment V, which is backed by various Republicans, independents and Democrats, would remove a candidate’s political party affiliation from the ballot, forcing candidates to depend on their qualifications and ideas rather than relying on the political machine to propel them into office.
We know South Dakotans are capable of making intelligent choices whether a political party is listed on the ballot or not. But removing the party label — a designation that pigeonholes our legislators into a rigid set of ideas they feel they must stick to in an effort to avoid backlash from their fellow party members — lawmakers would be beholden to the voters of South Dakota, not their political party [editorial board, “Amendment V Good Choice for SD,” Mitchell Daily Republic, 2016.09.15].
I agree that South Dakotans are capable of making choices without the state picking which key information to publish about candidates on the ballot. But the Mitchell Daily Republic overstates the benefits of removing party labels from the ballot. Amendment V may deprive candidates of the advantage of last-minute party branding, but it will not stop them from relying on their political machines to send out postcards, robocalls, and canvassers to overpaint their meager qualifications, denigrate their skillful opponents, and drive votes their way. Likewise, the party label on the ballot itself, the only label Amendment V removes, does not pigeonhole legislators into a rigid set of ideas. South Dakota Republicans (and to a lesser extent South Dakota Democrats) who do not follow the party line will still face repercussions within their caucuses.
The removal of party labels from the ballot will change candidate beholdenness far less than the open all-in-one primary Amendment V creates. MDR appears to grasp that the open primary is more significant reform:
No longer would the state’s 531,584 registered voters be restricted from one primary or the other. Each South Dakotan of voting age would be free to to support whichever candidate they choose.
We believe South Dakota’s political leaders should be advocating measures that make participation in the political process more accessible, and Amendment V does just that [MDR, 2016.09.15].
Having to face all voters of all parties in the primary will temper ideology and broaden candidates’ outreach to voters more than the removal of one letter by their names on one piece of paper.
Mortenson and the Republicans say Amendment V moves us away from transparency. It’s more like pulling one curtain in a house of glass. Under Amendment V, Democrats will still be Democrats, independents will still be independents, and Republicans will still be amoral Trumpists. The ballot won’t tell us who’s who, but countless other sources will. The state will provide one less bit of information. In return, the state will provide more people more chances to vote, thus encouraging candidates to talk to more people outside of their party echo chambers.