On November 4, 2009, the South Dakota Secretary of State reported that registered Democratic voters made up 38.36% of the electorate. That share has decreased every month since then. The 145th consecutive decline in voter share was posted April 1, when Democrats constituted 26.24% of South Dakota’s registered electorate.
Over the same period, Republican share has risen from 45.24% to 48.74%. Independent share has risen from 16.08% to 24.32%.
Since July 6, 2009, when recent Democratic registration peaked at 206,086, a net of over 54,000 Democratic voters have disappeared, leaving 151,984 registered Democrats. Over that same period, Republican ranks have swelled by over 39,000 (from 242,774 to 282,255), and independents have increased by more than 55,000 (from 85,775 to 140,845.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in 57 of 66 counties. The nine counties where Democrats outnumber Republicans include eight with lots of Indians (Oglala Lakota, Todd, Dewey, Roberts, Buffalo, Ziebach, Corson, and Bennett); the ninth is Clay. Registered independents outnumber Democrats in fifteen counties, including seven of our largest counties (Pennington, Meade, Lincoln, Union, Lawrence, Brookings, and Minnehaha, which include 55.45% of South Dakota’s voters).
Either Democrats are leaving the field or playing the Woster gambit that I mentioned earlier this morning, joining the net 54K exodus from the Democratic Party and registering as Republicans to fight for change and to ward off the menace of today’s GOP radicals. The uninterrupted 145-month decline in Democratic registrations supports Woster’s 2019 argument that infiltrating the GOP is the most viable route for making a political difference.
Of course, switching registration from Democratic to Republican viciously cycles against Democrats trying to maintain a visible opposition party, making it even harder for Democrats to find fellow Democratic voters to sign their nominating petitions and put them on the November ballot:
[SD Democratic Party exec Berk] Ehrmantraut said registered voters should know only registered Republicans can vote in Republican primaries, while Democrats and independents alike can vote in Democratic primaries.
That standard doesn’t hold true for gathering signatures, where Ehrmantraut said many candidates heard from registered Republicans or registered independents wanting to sign for them but couldn’t.
“A few people actually changed their registration because they really wanted to sign the petitions,” Ehrmantraut said. “If you are filling out your voter registration or updating your voter registration, it’s something important to think about – ‘Do I want to be able to sign petitions for Democratic candidates?’” [Eric Mayer, “Running as a Democrat in South Dakota,” KELO-TV, 2022.04.05]
Abandoning the Democratic roster poses another subtle process problem that imperils honest competitive elections. Per SDCL Chapter 12-15, county auditors must appoint a superintendent and at least two deputies to an election board for each precinct in their counties. Per SDCL 12-15-3, the precinct superintendent must belong to the party whose candidate won the most votes for Governor in the last general election in that precinct or, if the precinct didn’t exist during the last election, in that county. In elections with only two parties on the ballot, auditors must choose deputies to seat a majority from the party that won a majority of the precinct’s last gubernatorial vote. In elections with three or more parties on the ballot, auditors must choose at least one deputy from each party whose gubernatorial candidate won at least 15% of the precinct’s gubernatorial vote in the last election.
If we don’t have Democratic voters, Democrats can’t field a candidate for Governor. If Democrats don’t have a candidate for Governor, they can no longer guarantee themselves positions on precinct election boards.
Independents are not a party, so they cannot qualify for automatic representation on election boards, even if an independent candidate runs for Governor and wins as many votes as Larry Pressler won in his 2014 Senate bid. Independents can only make it onto precinct election boards if no county party central committee submits a list of election board nominees.
If Democratic voters all disappear into the R and I columns on the voter roll, Republican county party central committees can completely control who counts ballots. No attentive county party would give up that valuable opportunity, and no attentive Republican county party is going to entrust that valuable opportunity to newcomers who just switched their registration from Democratic to Republican.
Abandoning Democratic voter registration thus increases the chances that Republicans will hold every seat in precinct election boards, and we know what the Republican cult will do if they control all of the election boards.
Maybe Democrats can forge long-term political change in South Dakota by abandoning the Democratic label and engaging in Republican Party politics. Maybe Democrats can forge long-term change by sticking with the Democratic Party and trying to rebuild it into a distinct, proud, and viable opposition party. But the process rules for running for office and running elections indicate that Democrats can’t do both.