Joe Kirby, one of the leaders of the petition drive to put an amendment for open primaries on the 2024 ballot, said that “radical sides of both parties” would oppose his group’s initiative.
As I noted Thursday, Kirby’s both-sidesism fails to represent reality. While a Democratic legislator attended the petition-launching press conference Wednesday and endorsed the proposal, the chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party has vowed to campaign against it:
South Dakota Republican Party Chair John Wiik… hopes the measure doesn’t make it onto the ballot at all, and would like to see it defeated handily if it does.
“We are 110% opposed to the idea,” Wiik said. “It is our job in the Republican Party to put out the best candidates and decide who’s going to represent us on the general election ballot” [John Hult, “Open Primary Push to See Opposition from State Republican Party,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.04.19].
Of course, if opposition to ballot measures and petition drives were rooted solely in logic and evidence, the SDGOP’s opposition would count for naught:
That all voters pay for primary elections isn’t an issue that ought to preclude the party from walling off its primaries for its own voters, Wiik said.
“A primary is a necessary part of the election. It serves the entire public,” Wiik said
The GOP chair also said there are concerns about population centers moving the needle on the kinds of candidates who make their way onto the general election ballot. Voters deserve to trust that candidates running as Republicans share the party’s values, he said, and opening primaries to all voters could muddy the waters.
“I don’t think downtown Sioux Falls should be deciding who we should have on our general election ballot,” Wiik said. “It’s an old adage of mine: Pick a side and stick with it. If you run in the middle of the road, you’re bound to get run over” [Hult, 2023.04.19].
Voters pay for primaries, but parties can exclude a majority of voters? That sounds like the Republican view on school vouchers: Republicans can funnel taxpayer dollars to religious schools, but those schools can then exclude a majority of taxpayers’ kids from attending those schools.
Wiik’s contention that an exclusive primary is “necessary” and “serves the entire public” is similarly warped. If a process serves the entire public, then the entire public ought to have a say in it.
Wiik worries that allowing everyone to vote in an open primary would somehow increase the chance that candidates who declare themselves to be Republicans but don’t share professed Republican values would sneak onto the ballot and win. But we have seen people like adulterer Donald Trump, communist–authoritarian Kristi Noem, and socialist Al Novstrup win elections despite their frequent diversions from the pure Republican platform of family values, limited government, and free market. The Republicans’ closed primaries haven’t given us pure Republicans, so Wiik’s argument here is not unique: we can’t rely on any primaries, open or closed, to produce good Republicans. (But hey, “good Republican” is an oxymoron.)
Wiik’s “muddy the waters” argument itself violates the Republican platform. Wiik wants to maintain the closed primary system as a state-controlled method of authenticating Republican candidates. Why should the government conduct an election to certify that a Republican is really a Republican? Isn’t such certification up to the Republican Party itself? The state doesn’t pay for closed elections for Kiwanians to make sure Rotarians don’t sneak into their group. The state doesn’t govern ELCA church council elections to ensure that Baptists or peddlers of open theology don’t muddy their pure Lutheran waters. Why do Republicans (or Democrats, or any other partisans) need a state-run and state funded process to authenticate their membership? Republicans who believe in limited government and freedom of association should reject government-run party primaries and trust in their own ability as an organization to endorse candidates for an open primary and vigorously defend their party brand from fake Republicans.
And then there’s Wiik’s weird poke at “population centers”—i.e., places where lots of people live. Wiik seems to be expressing the same anti-democratic spirit that we can smell in Republican activist Mike Zitterich’s response to open primaries: Republicans don’t want everybody voting, just the people they think they can count on to maintain minority white landed Christian patriarchal rule. In a properly functioning democracy and even in a representative republic, population centers will always “move the needle” on which candidates win. Even in a closed primary, population centers will still cast more votes than the sparse hinterlands.
It shouldn’t be my job to try making sense of Wiik’s words, but I can speculate that he’s just sloppily invoking the bad logic of Liz May’s failed geographical quota proposal for petition signatures. Republicans have complained that a lot of ballot-question petitioning takes place in downtown Sioux Falls and other population centers. Again, that’s just the practical nature of petition drives: if you want people to sign a petition, you have to go where there are people. Sure, thanks to my successful litigation, South Dakota Open Primaries has six more months to collect signatures, so maybe they have time to send circulators out to ride the Mickelson Trail or canvass the Custer National Forest in Harding County. Maybe we could convince Wiik and his party activists to spend all of their time out campaigning along remote gravel roads. But Joe Kirby, De Knudson, and the other folks running SD Open Primaries are sensible businesspeople who will still want to use their circulating time and talent as efficiently as possible by sending their circulators to places where they can interact with as many South Dakotans as possible per hour, like downtown Sioux Falls.
Of course, the people signing petitions in downtown Sioux Falls aren’t all downtown Sioux Falls residents, any more than people signing petitions in front of the public library in downtown Aberdeen are all downtown Aberdeen residents, or the people signing petitions at the State Fairgrounds in Huron are all Huron residents. Those signers are all South Dakota voters, and they are all equally entitled to sign petitions.
By the way, I figure from 2021 redistricting map that the four precincts surrounding the core downtown area of Sioux Falls have fewer than 10,000 residents of voting age. So even if South Dakota Open Primaries posted circulators nowhere but the downtown Sioux Falls library, the Minnehaha County admin building, and the Levitt Shell, and even if they got every registered voter who actually lives within eight blocks of those choice locations to sign their petition, they’d still have to hope that they’d catch more than 25,000 visitors to Sioux Falls’s splendid downtown to reach the 35,017-signature threshold necessary to put open primaries to a statewide vote.
And there’s the big point that Wiik and other anti-democracy Republicans regularly miss. Signing a petition does not decide the issue. Signing the open-primaries petition does not decide how we will conduct primaries and choose general election candidates. 35,017 voters signing a petition put a constitutional amendment to a statewide vote; 605,353 voters across the state (as of today’s count) decide whether the amendment passes.
Not one of Wiik’s arguments represents a coherent reason to reject either South Dakota Open Primaries’ petition drive or the concept of open primaries. Instead, Wiik’s arguments represent the anti-democratic spirit of the South Dakota Republican Party and the SDGOP’s inability to make arguments consistent even with its own party platform.