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Cunningham: Democrats Can Regain Relevancy via Ballot Questions

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:

John Cunningham
John Cunningham

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].


  1. Richard Schriever 2021-04-01 07:28

    The recent initiative and referendum process HAS been driven almost exclusively by Democrats in SD. WHY do you think the GOP legislature is working overtime to suppress that process?? AGAIN – I will reiterate – the first thing that needs to be “INITIATED” is a constitutional amendment that PROHIBITS the legislature from tinkering with voter initiated and enacted measures. Good grief – the DENSITY of thinking demonstrated by Democrats in NOT comprehending and acting on this is frankly disturbing, and a great indicator of why they/we don’t get anywhere in this “game”.

  2. Donald Pay 2021-04-01 09:27

    I understand the frustration of not having a viable two-party system in South Dakota, but the initiative and referendum were not meant to be party-building vehicles. When the initiative and referendum was being discussed pre-statehood and adopted 9 years after statehood, these ballot measures had broad support from people of all parties. It was primarily an anti-corruption, pro-democracy mechanism, similar to the party primary system that came along 10 years after the initiative and referendum.

    Back then South Dakotans and North Dakotans jealously guarded their new statehoods against out-of-state interests. Railroads and giant grain consortia held an economic grip on many towns and small farmers and businesses were squeezed when trying to sell and ship commodities. Towns, of course, wanted access to outside markets, but the big boys from Minnesota threw their weight around a little too much for the Dakotans. That created the feeling that corruption in government was or could become a problem. Indeed, they kept an early version of the initiative out of the statehood constitution because they feared their ideas of trusting people to decide on some laws would not be accepted in the smoke-filled political caucus rooms of Washington, DC.

    The initiative and referendum were meant to be used by the people, not a political party. The words in the SD Constitution begin, “…the people expressly reserve to themselves…” the right to initiate and refer. The reason for this is that party people back then knew that parties and political processes could be or become corrupt, but they had faith that “the people” wouldn’t.

    Just from practical experience, it is difficult to petition, let alone win, a ballot measure, and it is nearly impossible if you are using it as a partisan tool. Every initiative or referendum that I participated in relied on people, not parties or party apparatchiks, because we saw that special interests don’t just try to corrupt one party, they want to corrupt the whole system. In the 1980’s fight against nuclear waste, we battled against Democrats as much as Republicans. And we had effective and crucial support from conservative Republicans. The mining fight in the late 80’s and early 90’s was begun by Republicans. And similarly, we had strong leadership from conservative Republicans in our solid waste ballot measures. The Hughes County hog farm fight in the Mickelson Administration had support from, get this, within the Mickelson Administration Cabinet. Term limits, which I supported but wasn’t involved with, had bi-partisan support.

    The lesson is initiatives and referendums are not political tools. That are important mechanisms against corruption or particularly bad decisions by the Legislature.

    I would advise the SD Democratic Party to stay out of initiatives as a party-building exercise. If there is an issue that is particularly important to people within the party, it is fine to indicate support through a resolution, but the ballot measure should be sponsored and run in a manner that invites all people, no matter what party they identify with, to participate. Of course, initiative sponsors welcome any volunteer petition circulators.

  3. Donald Pay 2021-04-01 10:03

    Just to answer Richard above, the effort to hamstring people using the initiative and referendum is principally the work of powerful lobbying interests. It’s blatant corruption, and it’s not strictly related to parties. They write the bills and hand them to various legislators to sponsor. Since they are well aware that the Republican Party is in the majority, that’s where you would expect them to concentrate their effort. It’s not a new effort. It started in the 1980’s during the nuclear waste fight, when we beat powerful out-of-state business interests who saw South Dakota as a sacrifice area. These included Burlington Northern, whose lobbyist in South Dakota was former Democratic Lt. Governor Bill Dougherty. It also included Chem-Nuclear, one of whose lobbyists was an Aberdeen Democrat named Chuck Kornmann. I don’t know for sure if they were involved in the efforts to restrict the initiative that began during that time, but I have my suspicions. There were a few bills introduced, none got traction, but the special interests kept trying, and eventually got what they wanted.

  4. Richard Schriever 2021-04-01 10:52

    Donald – the point I make here is that the “official” GOP – the PARTY apparatus – is NOT – as demonstrated by the success of the initiative a referendum process, and the fervent opposition to same by that party apparatus reflective of the views of the populace in general. The other point is that the initiative and referendum process HAS – IN FACT been driven almost exclusively – by Democrats.

  5. Donald Pay 2021-04-01 13:59

    Richard, I think the point is that the initiative/referendum is a non-partisan process. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the process was used mostly by people interested in specific issues that they felt were felt not being addressed by or being poorly addressed by the Legislature. The issues were not specifically “Democratic” or “Republican” or liberal or conservative in nature. The issues concerned and attracted concerned people from both parties. In general, I would agree that Republicans originally thought they could work through the Governor and Legislature, rather than through an initiative. This was the case because they had more faith in the Republican-dominated Legislature than Democrats did.

    The point was, we didn’t use the initiative as the first and only strategy. We went to the Legislature year after year. We lobbied. We developed concepts for bills, and worked with legislators to get them introduced. We opposed some bills. We attended various legislative hearings and presented testimony. We wrote letters. We contested permits. We did whatever we could to move the issue forward, and sometime when we met a Governor or Legislature that refused to act or that acted in an unwise manner, we used the initiative or referendum. That’s the way it was envisioned, not as a party organizing tool.

  6. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-01 14:12

    Donald Pay has a good point. When the constitution was created, we had a viable two party system. That is no longer the case. The only way progressive ideas will get a hearing is through the petition process. All the efforts he pointed out were effective when we had an effective party. That is no longer the case. None of that will enact even one item on the platform.
    The petition process was not originally designed as a party organizing tool, but it now is the only tool available and can be the most effective. In the past we have focused our efforts and financial support exclusively to candidates with lip service to petitions. This has been a waste of valuable resources. We now need to shift to focus our efforts on petition drives that further our objectives in a way that has some realistic chance of success. The legislative process has no realistic chance of success in passing progressive ideas. The best they can do is use personal persuasion to blunt some of the most regressive ideas in the legislature, although truly that is of some value.

  7. grudznick 2021-04-01 14:21

    As a former environmental activist, grudznick agrees with Mr. Pay wholeheartedly. We did work with the legislatures and the Governors to get things done.

  8. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-01 15:31

    Absolutely true, but the key word is “did” . Working with the legislature isn’t working any more. It worked when the SDDP was influential, having over 40% of th voters in the state. Republicans could not ignore you. Now that we are less than 30% and shrinking, legislative influence is absolutely minimal. That is why getting behind ballot measures and actually initiating them is our most effective way and really the only way of moving South Dakota forward.

  9. grudznick 2021-04-01 15:32

    Mr. Cunningham, perhaps those ideas you view as “progressive” are simply viewed by the majority as “bad”. As such, they should be squelched. And most people probably don’t want bad ideas to be implemented, so they blunt them with whatever tools they have. What we really need is to have the debates without the rioters attacking businesses and hindering free trade.

  10. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-01 15:37

    Second part is absolutely true. The first par is partly true. There are platform issues that need to be words only that allow segments of the party to be heard.
    But there are issues such as ethics and enhanced Medicaid that we should be seen as actively promoting. The SDDP should be selective in choosing which platform planks to be aggressive on for the reasons you stated.

  11. Donald Pay 2021-04-01 21:15

    Historically, John Cunningham, the Republican Party was dominant back in the territorial and early statehood days. Back then the Republican Party had progressive elements, though “progressive” had a different meaning. There was a progressive agrarian movement. There was a small socialist party. While things were different, the concern about out-of-state interests having too much control over the state was similar to the concerns many citizens had in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    The political decline of the Democratic Party is a common theme in South Dakota. It’s cyclical. The Dems will come back, eventually. They always do. It will take people getting sick of the corruption, which is rampant, and the ossified thinking, also rampant. Generally, it takes a number of scandals and Republicans getting crossways on some big issue. The Democrats come back, clean up government, and then Republicans take it back and away you go with another cycle of creeping corruption.

  12. Donald Pay 2021-04-01 21:40

    Yes, working with the Legislature on issues is often futile, but you have to do it. We had to do it in the 1980s when the Republicans had a lock on the Legislature. You need a grassroots organization or a coalition of organizations that works in a non-partisan way. You need citizens to show up in Pierre and at crackerbarrels. You have to testify, present facts, have a presence that news media can cover. You have to prove to people you are serious about an issue and part of the culture and custom of South Dakota. People think you can just show up at the Secretary of State’s office with some initiative proposal. That’s not how it works if you want to be effective. You have to come back year after year for them to take you seriously.

  13. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-01 22:28

    But we do come back year after year m. And when we had a two party system it worked as Mr. Pay said. Currently they can, and do, ignore us. They even ignore the people by repealing initiatives. Nonetheless, initiative is the only way Democrat ideas will ever get passed in South Dakota. It is the only tool available. Enhanced Medicaid has been a Democrat proposal for a decade. NOTHING passed the legislature because we are not the state we were a few decades ago. We are not the party we were a few decades ago. Those days are gone unless we can rebuild the party. And there are no plans to rebuild the party. Those who believe that Democrats can pass enhanced Medicaid using the legislative process are delusional.

  14. leslie 2021-04-02 04:53

    “ in the 2018 election….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….”

    “unless we can rebuild the party. And there are no plans to rebuild the party. Those who believe that Democrats can pass enhanced Medicaid using the legislative process are delusional.”

  15. Donald Pay 2021-04-02 07:00

    I agree on the Medicaid initiative, but that is not a matter of political party building. It’s real life and death.

  16. Joe 2021-04-02 12:57

    Opinion: The state party should begin conversations with Stacey Abrams’ “Fair Fight” group around strategy and next steps. Yes, the demographics in GA were/are different, but the overall dynamics are not. South Dakota has plenty of younger folks and folks of color who are not currently registered, Reach out to them where they are. Keep at it. Do not be afraid of taking bold, progressive stands. It will take awhile.

  17. Richard Schriever 2021-04-02 15:53

    Donald – THEORETICALLY “the initiative/referendum is a non-partisan process.” Theoretically – we have a 2 party system or even a multiparty system in SD. But practically (as in the actual PRACTICE – the way it’s actually done) neither of those theoretical realities are actual/practical reality.

  18. Richard Schriever 2021-04-02 15:58

    grudz – puzzle me this. IF progressive ideas are “viewed by the majority as “bad””, then how is it that those same progressive ideas end up getting passed by sometime SUBSTANTIAL majorities of the voters as initiated measures, and at the same time “regressive” measures (like abortion bans) get DEFEATED by that same voting public?

  19. Richard Schriever 2021-04-02 16:05

    Donald “….working with the Legislature on issues is often futile, but you have to do it.” How about reversing the two elements here; as in when speaking to the legislature “working with the VOTERS on issues is often futile, but you have to do it.”? How about the legislators HAVING to – being REQUIRED to work under the conditions SET by the voters through the initiative process??

    Consent of the Governed Act:

    “Any initiated act or Constitutional Amendment passed by a direct vote of the people, shall not be nullified or altered or amended in any way by any means other to a direct vote of the people.”

    There is nothing partisan about this. This is assuring that the will of the people is not NULLIFIED by a select few citizens (a simple one person majority of the legislature).

  20. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-02 17:48

    There are at least two ballot measures that are Democrat platform planks—Enhanced Medicaid and Redisticting Commission. By definition the SDDP wants those to become law. Expecting them to be passed by the legislature is delusional. We can do all the things Mr. Pay says and NOTHING will pass.
    If SDDP wants those passed it must get the signatures, not just lip service. The initiative process is th only way to enact at least some of our platform. NONE will get through the legislature.

  21. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:04

    The Democratic Party WANTS to be in Sioux Falls, not Pierre.
    The Democratic Party wants to be stuck at 28% forever, the Republicans have been at 48% forever.

    The distorted (oops, on Paper) Democracy, allows the R Partyto grab 90 to 95% of all seats.

    I and R WON’T save the Dem. Party, period.

    Basically, since 1978, the Democratic Party has run against TWO Republican Parties—the nominal one which has 95% of legislative seats and the Independents which are basically the 2nd R
    Arty that votes predominantly Rippublican.

    Cunningham is right that I and R is essential for Democracy. But it won’t expand the D Party.

    Only going from 28% to 50% and beyond will get the Democratic Party to win.

    Independent voters are a pool pool of potential Democrats. Essentially, most of them will say they wanna be Independent but they Republicans with out the name.

    This won’t happen, the Democratic Party is too in love with their losing leadership, not the electorate.

    1. Move the Partyfrom Sioux Falls to Pierre. Fire the leadership. Set up a Plan in writing and on the web, which has the basic steps the D Partywill follow to PERMANENTLY be at 60% in the polls and in the Legislative seat count. With no Plan, they will FAIL.

    2. Increase Democratic Party numbers from 28% to 60% . Yes. Not a typo. Bipartisanship is a caving in, no values but capitulation technique. The D party often caves, instead of voting No or for what is right.

    New Democrats will come from Values, not caving. Under 18 to age 35 voters. All minority voters. Out of state folks who move here. Those 3 will get D Party closer to 60%. D Leadership should say publicly, we are looking for 100,000 Democrats. We want them. There is No dialogue with non Party people, look at DPSD website, it sucks! It is an e-mail capturing device. There is no interactivity on the Page.

    Dem. party should actively recruit out of state people to move here. period. The great history of Democrats, Tom Berry, Dick Kneip, Harvey Wollman, George McGovern, Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson should be front and center.

    3. D Party Plans should be public. Discussed in public.

    That’s it!

    Dem. party leadership Now will not do this. They will cave and lose.

    A 3rd Party can do this.go from 0 to 60% of voters. It won’t be easy. But it can be done!

  22. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:09

    The Inititiative and Referendum Process is a nonpartisan tool, of the People. Not the Parties.

    The Democratic Party has chosen to be a Losing Party with flimsy values. Me too doesn’t get you elected (as far as Blue Dogs loving guns).

    Act like JFK and FDR and Biden, and you get elected. Act like SD Dems behave, you lose.

  23. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:14

    You can’t have a really healthy I and R Process with a dying Democratic Party.

    We have to Stacey Abrams the whole state. Yes.

    Democracy died here in 1978. Period.

    A 2 Party system is not healthy. It presupposes that all other Parties are dead. We have a 1 Party system with the Rs, and the D Party always caving being the Vanilla Bitch to the Republican Party’s Vanilla Fascist pro Trump Party.

  24. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:19

    Typo. Independents are Not a pool of a potential Democrats. They are closet Republicans. The 2nd R Party.
    Maybe in I and R they will vote for marijuana and video lottery and a women’s choice, but essentially they are Republicans without the name plate.

  25. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:24

    Vanilla Fascist Pro Trump Party. Vanilla Fascist Bitch Party ( the D Party). This translates to a one Party system.

  26. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:28

    How can you increase the numbers of Registered Democrats while the Party is a caving in , capitalistic , bipartisan, weak Party? The leadership has to change or quit. They are too comfortable losing and caving in.

  27. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:29

    Capitulation Party. Auto correct typo.

  28. SD is 20 per cent nonwhite 2021-04-03 07:31

    The SD constitution is neither capitalist or socialist. It permits the people to create what they want to create.

  29. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-03 09:17

    The talk of capitulation isn’t helpful. When you are insignificant doing anything else is impossible.
    Why/how did we become insignificant.
    People blame abortion and that was the start. But it has t be more than that. The troubling thing is that no one is asking the how/why question. We must know that answer before we can counter it.

  30. Donald Pay 2021-04-03 10:38

    Stop looking at redistricting as a party problem. It’s a representative democracy problem.

    In my progressive area in Wisconsin, no serious Republicans challenge anyone. Republicans packed all us Democrats into gerrymandered districts in 2011. In most elections I no longer have a choice to vote for any Republican, nor do Republicans in this district. They become disaffected, with all sorts of odd grievances. They lose interest in constructive engagement. They move to their corner and nurse their grievances. Some become extremists. They no longer care to vie for the moderate voters. That didn’t used to be the case. In the 1990’s this district was represented by a popular Republican, who was smart and open minded.

    I saw that same thing happen in Rapid City. District 35 used to be a very competitive district. It could be won by candidates of either party. It created a lot of interest in civic engagement, a lot of discussion and contention, but also a lot of agreement. Then it got gerrymandered, part of the plan to split the Indian and poor white vote in North Rapid, east Rapid and Old Robbinsdale. Those folks, which would have included me, if I hadn’t moved away. Now they have no real chance at representation.

    What you want is a government that fairly represents the will of the people. People should pick their representatives, not the other way around. Quit thinking in party terms. Think in terms of fairly representing people.

  31. grudznick 2021-04-03 11:18

    When the libbies became a group mostly consumed with hate, name-calling and rage they started the nosedive of the Democrat party. It is about to auger in.

  32. Donald Pay 2021-04-24 07:49

    Liberals hate hate. We love everyone. We don’t think up ways to prevent people from voting. We don’t hate people who are gay, trans or even, the horror, Republican. We encourage all people to be who they are and participate fully in their freedom. We love people even when they are born, or born somewhere else. We don’t trash the Capitol Building, looking to hang Pence. We honor the people who were here first.

  33. JOHN F CUNNINGHAM 2021-04-24 08:27

    Good Point. Democrats are the ones that implement “Love thy Neighbor”. Republicans TALK Christian, Democrats DO Christian. We avoid talking about it, but your post confirms it.

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