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Epp to Next Democratic Party Exec: Voter Registration Is Job #1

Wait a minute... maybe Epp is just another Manafort agent, trying to sabotage us Democrats!
Wait a minute, comrade… maybe Epp is just another Manafort agent, trying to sabotage democracy for the FSB!

I like Todd Epp on the radio. He’s doing good work for Greg Belfrage and adding some good text and diversity of thought to the KELO Radio website. (He also helps me into some fun on-air conversations—thanks, Todd!)

But maybe Todd could use two jobs—radio on the early shift, then South Dakota Democratic Party exec from lunch ’til bedtime? He’s not angling for the newly opened job, but he’s certainly offering some strong talking points for the go-get-’em applicant who wants to turn the SDDP around.

In his morning Token Liberal post, Epp says the state Dems have wasted time and money on ballot measures while letting voter registration slide:

The decision to put money, time, people, and resources into the initiative and referendum processes the past several elections has resulted in dropping party registration with no appreciable increase in organization or funding at the local level to help Democratic candidates. The bill for this short circuiting of party building has come due [Todd Epp, “What State Democrats Need Now Is a Membership Plan,” KELO Radio: Token Liberal, 2017.04.14].

I’m not prepared to concede that Democratic voter registration (down again, 169,688 by this month’s report, down a half a percentage point since Election Day while Republicans are up 0.69% and indies are up 3.12%; down 17.66% from our July 2009 peak) is a “result” of Democratic work on ballot measures. The slide was well underway before Dems made their ballot measure pushes in 2012, 2014, and 2016. I will agree that resources spent on ballot measures were resources not spent on voter registration; however, I will disagree that Democrats can only do ballot measures or voter registration. A smart, energetic party marshals the resources to do both (and more, all coordinated from new field offices!).

Epp isn’t all either/or, either. He understands parties need to do lots of things, but argues that recruitment is the first thing:

Obviously the party should try to do the other things that political parties should do—raise money, find candidates and volunteers, get a consistent, coherent, appealing message out.

But without members of the Democratic Party, it is all for naught [Epp, 2017.04.14].

We lost 36,000+ registered voters over four election cycles. Epp it’s “completely unreasonable” to think we can win them all back in one (come on, Todd—aim high!), which is why he says we need a long-term exec:

And this will take time, maybe two to three (or more) electoral cycles. The slide toward irrelevance didn’t happen overnight. The fix won’t take place overnight.

So find someone as the new SDDP executive director who is in it for the long haul. And the party brass needs to give them the time to make this work [Epp, 2017.04.14].

If Todd weren’t so smitten with the bright lights and headphones, I’d say, SDDP, hire him! Absent that smart choice, let’s hope the SDDP finds a new exec who says, “Yup, Todd’s right. And field offices!


  1. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr. 2017-04-14

    I am all for a great voter registration drive by the Democratic Party, but we also need to re-establish an effective GOTV program. When is the last time as a Democrat, that anyone has been called on election day by a Democratic gubernatorial or congressional campaign to make sure that you have voted or will vote later that day? GOTV seems to have become a lost art in this state for Democrats and possibly to some degree a victim of the early voting phenomenon, which causes GOTV or its potential use to be too strung out – and this latter concern is a challenge that needs to be addressed if GOTV is going to work in the future…

  2. Roger Elgersma 2017-04-14

    Raising registration is obviously one important point. But to do that you need successes. The ballot initiatives is our main win lately, so do not slam that. Maybe we do need another age group represented at the top spot rather than just one young one after another. Just the right person, not based on age is good. Chose particularly honest people to run against the dishonesty of those who do not want an ethics commission. Be strong where they are weak is a great strategy. Win some seats back and raise registration at the same time.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-04-14

    JKC, chickens and eggs? Do we need to register a whole bunch of new voters to have votes to get out on Election Day?

    How well do those GOTV calls work, JKC? If such efforts have dropped off, is it because we’ve had three elections in a row of Democratic House candidates running on thin budgets that can’t appreciably boost turnout?

    Roger, I like your point of not slamming or ending the only source of victory that we’ve enjoyed in the last three cycles. I would think we can benefit from doing voter registration alongside, not instead of, ballot measures.

  4. grudznick 2017-04-14

    Mr. Epp, who used to byline all his writings with “Todd Epp is a heterosexual lawyer from Harrisburgh”, should actually run for the Governorship for the dying Democrat party. Look at those who are insaner than most who have run recently, and Mr. Epp would be a breath of fresh air and sanity. I, for one, would support Mr. Epp in the primary. Or if he wanted to run for something like Auditor of the State or Lands Commissioner I would vote for him all the way to the end. Mr. Epp is a swell fellow.

  5. grudznick 2017-04-14

    Mr. Howie, who is insaner than most, if not the insanest of them all, is emailing people to send money to Ms. Hubbel to run for governor. I assure you I will not be giving any money to Ms. Hubbel, and I urge none of you rich fellows to do so either.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-04-14

    Howie appears committed to congenially winking irrelevance.

    Epp for Governor? I’m open to that idea. But again, chicken and egg: do we need solid party leadership to get a Democratic Governor? Or does a Democrat have to win a statewide office to reconnect the party with the respect and resources and recruit good party leaders?

  7. Curt 2017-04-14

    Voter registration is basic to voter participation. Party affiliation is an accessory, and participation is optional. Mr Epp is accurate in identifying voter registration as a necessary SDDP function. However, it is a necessary but not sufficient factor in electoral success. The key – as noted above – is GOTV. Repubs show up reliably and consistently. Typically they face fewer obstacles in exercising their franchise which makes the GOTV function all the more necessary for Dems.
    Most of us understand that fundraising is a necessary on-going obligation for all political operations … that’s what supports voter registration and GOTV, and a swarm of other daily tasks. Whoever takes on the challenge of SDDP Director needs to do so with a skill set worthy of a salary far greater than what SDDP can afford. But more than that, the Party needs someone with the greatest political gift of all – vision and a commitment to achieve it. When was the last time we had that?

  8. jerry 2017-04-15

    The question of the day or night is “When was the last time we had that?”, got me to thinking, when indeed did we have all that. Near as I can figure that would have been when Stephanie Herseth ran and won. We had young folks here from all over the place registering voters and GOTV ing. It was so great that the FBI came to my house to ask for one of the young college kids that was registering voters in Pine Ridge and Rosebud. Seems they had a question on a date or something. Kind of surprised me a little and angered me a lot, but then I thought about that for a while and thought that someone should be making sure our elections are as honest as can be. As far as I know, there was never ever an organized voter registration drive of that magnitude after that. If South Dakota Democrats need to know how to do all of that, Stephanie would be the go to gal on how to make it work. She may be interested in providing details, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

    The voter registration also shows folks that there is a choice too. Maybe get them to thinking that the way they have been abused by the republicans will just keep going unless they do something to change the pattern. I say we make Epp an epic offer to bring life back into this operation.

  9. Richard Schriever 2017-04-15

    A detailed analysis would likely show most “lost” voters were lost to A.) death, B.) relocation to another state. “Winning them back” is not an accurate turn of phrase describing what needs to be done to increase Dem registration as a percentage of registered SD voters.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-04-15

    Fair point, Richard: there are a lot of voters who can’t be brought back, because they are gone. We need to convert and recruit.

    Nonetheless, Paula Hawks got 132,792 votes last year. There were 170,655 registered Democrats at election time. That means at least 22% of Democrats on the rolls didn’t mark her name or didn’t show up. Kristi’s tally/GOP registration—237,141/252,084—shows that at least 6% of Republicans didn’t show up. That speaks to Curt’s point: there is room for Dem GOTV to make a difference. Dem GOTV won’t close the gap by itself, but it would have knocked off 26% of the Noem/Hawks gap.

  11. Curt 2017-04-15

    To take it one step further, yes, registration is key. But I have seen frequently those newly registered voters are not reliable voters. There are examples of efforts which succeed in completing the two-step process, but they are rare. Organization, commitment, and follow-through are required to complete the job.

  12. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr. 2017-04-15


    I believe any voter registration drive needs to be targeted to those areas where the maximum amount of Democratic voters can be found. I am not a big believer in just setting up tables at a fair and then inadvertently registering a bunch of Republicans. These targeted registrations tied to already low frequency Democratic voters should be the heart of any effective GOTV.

    I think that GOTV, when done right, can be very effective, but you are right that the last couple of tight budget campaigns for Democratic congressional candidates have destroyed the GOTV tradition. GOTV has become a lost art and I frankly think it will take more than one election cycle to get it up to speed for Dems.

    I also think that we need to create a boot camp to develop a whole new generation of Democratic activists who know how to run targeted voter registration drives and an effective GOTV. This boot camp needs to be led by past experienced political activists, who know how to conduct VR drives and GOTV, but who have been inactive or have channeled their talents in recent years to other interests or other angles of the political world. We need to create an elite organizing force for Dems, that I would call “Navy Seal Democrats”……. Who can get the job done.

    This boot camp should be for three months during the summer to especially encourage young people to get involved with it. And it should be funded with money raised from the Daschle, Johnson, and Sandlin forces and their contacts, and gentlemen like Mr. Hildebrand, Mr. Samuelson, and Mr. Stavrianos should be running it.

    We need to get serious about this concern many of us have for the Democratic Party in South Dakota, or else we should just turn off the lights and call it quits quite frankly.

  13. Donald Pay 2017-04-15

    We have same-day registration and voting in Wisconsin. It has been on-going here for 4 decades without any problems. It has bi-partisan support.

    It used to be you could just have someone, like a neighbor, vouch that you lived at the place you stated, register and vote all in one trip. Now they require a bit more documentation that you live where you say you do, but you can register and vote in one trip. It’s better for students and other young folks who move around a lot, and who don’t think about registering until they want to vote. Also good for lower income folks who tend to move a lot. In Dane County all the libraries register folks, and we have early voting going on weeks before any election at all our libraries.

    You can make the process much easier for the customer (the voter) with some added costs and little, if any, added risk. It should be a requirement of office that elected election officials see that everyone is registered to vote, and it should be easy, not hard to register and vote.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-04-17

    I’m all for same-day registration.

    Say, could we have a system where signing a nominating petition or a ballot question petition would register a person to vote? I suppose technically, registration must happen before signing a petition, since only registered voters can nominate or propose ballot measures… but what would happen if we changed that requirement?

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