In 2016, Black Hawk conservative Nick Reid was one of an interesting ideological assortment of advocates for Amendment V, which would have replaced partisan primaries with nonpartisan open primaries. Reid wanted candidates nominated by any party or by independent petition for Congress, statewide offices, Legislature, and county offices to appear on a single primary ballot, without any party affiliation listed. Under Amendment V, all registered voters, including independents, could vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters in each race (top four for State House, top six in county races electing three commissioners…) would advance to the general election. South Dakota voters turned down that measure 55.5% to 44.5%.
Reid is inclined to try again for open primaries in 2022. According to a December 17, 2020, letter posted to the Secretary of State’s current ballot question webpage, Reid has proposed a simpler, one-paragraph change to our Constitution to implement open primaries:
An open primary election shall be held prior to the general election to nominate candidates for the office of Governor, the Legislature, all county elective offices, and the United States Senate and House of Representatives. The primary election for such candidates shall be open to all registered voters. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the open primary are the nominees for each office. If more than one candidate is to be elected to an office, the number of nominees shall be twice the number to be elected [Nick Reid, proposed initiated amendment, reviewed by Legislative Research Council, 2020.12.17].
Reid’s 2022 proposal keeps the core open primary concept—everybody on one ballot, everybody votes—but eschews the ban on partisan labels on the ballot called for in 2016’s Amendment V. Republicans who benefit mightily from their branding on South Dakota ballots based their self-serving opposition to V on that point, claiming supporters were trying to hide information from voters. Reid also does not retry Amendment V’s provision that all candidates meet the same petition signature requirements to get on the primary ballot. Where Amendment V offered nine sections, Reid’s amendment offers one.
To make sure details like petition requirements are addressed, the Legislative Research Council recommends that Reid add a directing the Legislature to “provide by law any provisions necessary to implement this section.” The LRC also recommends Reid strike the word “open”, apparently deeming that adjective unnecessary.
As I did in 2016, I wholeheartedly support Reid’s proposal to allow every South Dakotan the chance to participate in the primary election on an equal footing. Tactically, I’d love to see nine Republicans run to fill an accessible seat (as they might in 2022 to replace a vulnerable, out-of-touch, and failing Kristi Noem in 2022), divide the conservative vote, and make it possible for two smart Democrats to collaborate to win bigger chunks of the Democratic and Independent vote and give South Dakotans and all-Democratic choice in November.
But more important than that partisan hope is my commitment to the principle that giving more people more chances to vote on the destiny of the Republic is good. Open primaries mean that, even in races where Democrats can’t field a contender and all the candidates are Republicans (like many sheriff’s races), every still gets a voice in picking our elected officials. Let’s hope Reid has filed his final draft with the Attorney General and will bring a final initiative petition to the streets by springtime.