South Dakota Democrats have grown their registered ranks by 2.76% in the past twelve months. But Republicans have grown their voter rolls over the same period by 7.96% and registered independents have increased 8.23%. The Democratic Party’s share of South Dakota’s growing electorate has thus decreased since last March from 28.21% to 27.19%, while Republicans have cracked 48% and independents have risen above 24%.
Sioux Falls activist John Cunningham has written before about how we might reverse that slide in Democratic registration and reputation. He writes again this spring, urging the Democratic to rebuild its brand and exert immediate influence on policy by emphasizing ballot measures:
The SDDP has fallen on hard times in many ways. First, the size of the party fell by 20% from over 200,000 members in 2008 to under 160,000 today while Republicans and Independents grew. For some reason, new registrants do not identify with the Democratic Party. We don’t know how to reverse that because we don’t know why and aren’t even asking the question. Secondly, we have had severe leadership problems that led to financial disaster making it difficult to put us in a position to make any efforts that require significant amounts of funds. Third, as a result of the shrinking party size, our representation at the state level has shrunk to new lows and national representation has disappeared. At this point in time, our influence on South Dakota public policy is almost nonexistent. And being a positive influence on South Dakota public policy is, or should be, the party mission.
This can be accomplished two ways:
1. Expand the party and its representation in Pierre and in local courthouses.
In the foreseeable future this will not happen. It will require a substantial increase in voter confidence in our values. At this time the polarization of politics means that all, or nearly all, republican voters vote strictly Republican and Democrat voters strictly Democrat. We need to attract independent voters. The bad news is that as a default, 7 out of 8 independents vote Republican. The evidence is in the 2018 election. Down ballot (State Auditor, State Treasurer, Secretary of State, School and Public Lands, where the only information most voters have is the party affiliation, we got on average about 13,000 independent votes. The turnout was 64.9%. That is 82,000 independent votes of which we got 13,000. 69,000 independents seem to think voting Republican is generally better than voting Democrat. Somehow we have to convince the other 69,000 that voting Democrat is good. To win these down ballot races that are a test of party affiliation, our candidates need to count on receiving every independent vote unless the Democrat numbers dramatically increase. Billie Sutton came the closest, getting about 58,000 independent and/or Republican votes because of his extraordinary personal appeal. Randy Seiler came second getting about 42,000 Republican/independent votes because he overwhelmed his opponent with qualifications. But not enough. In the short and intermediate term, representation in Pierre will be limited to a few districts where gerrymandering focuses the Democrat votes. We need another way to influence South Dakota public policy.
2. Engage the Initiative/Referendum process.
There are a number of petitions that reflect Democrat values. The SDDP can be of great influence in this. The party has enough leaders (the State Central Committee alone is about 400 members, not including precinct committee persons) that circulating petitions and gathering sufficient signatures should be relatively easy. To do this, the party must be willing to demand that its SSC officers support the initiatives and referenda that it endorses by gathering a set number of signatures. It requires about 17,000 valid signatures, or 10.7% of all Democrats in the state. The way to ensure success is for the party to require that each County and District chair obtain signatures equal to 6% of the registered Democrats in the county or district. We can also assist funding for copying, mailing, etc.
The weakness in this approach is the willingness of the SCC officers to do the work. While all the officers may be committed Democrats, I suspect that the level of commitment may vary. All are willing to attend SCC meetings and hold local meetings, but actually working at collecting signatures, farming out and following up on collections by precinct committeepersons may be more responsibility than some will accept. That places a higher burden on the active officers or risk failure of our support.
This is important because success breeds success and failure breeds failure. If a popular measure is on the ballot through the efforts of SDDP, then our reputation and resultant ability to recruit members during voter registration drives is significantly enhanced. If we fail, we enhance our reputation of being irrelevant. In the past we have tried to be the best of both by giving lip service with a resolution of endorsement that accomplished nothing and did nothing to build the party.
In summary, focusing on candidates for legislative and other political offices to enhance our relevance in South Dakota public policy is next to worthless until we rebuild the party by substantially increasing the numbers. This will not happen in the short term and unless we address the question of why a strong majority of voters shun the party, it will never happen. The other reason the candidate focus will not build the party is that the candidates are not party builders. The candidate’s job is to get people to vote for him/her, not to convert them to be Democrats. Billie Sutton got 60,000 independent/Republican votes. But they voted Sutton, not Democrat. None of them reregistered as Democrats. We did not get an increase of registrations as a result of Billie’s personal popularity. Building the party can elect good candidates. Good candidates will not build the party.
For the foreseeable future, our ability to make South Dakota better is limited to the petition process and the SDDP needs to move its focus in that direction. Publicly espousing and actively ensuring the success of popular measures such as Medicaid for all shows us in a favorable light and makes us look more relevant and beneficial in the eyes of South Dakota voters [John Cunningham, essay to DFP, 2021.03.31].