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Working To Fix A ‘Broken’ System

SDOP Circulating Petitions, Hopes Voters Will Approve Open Primaries

A group of South Dakotans — some who were involved in a failed attempt to bring open primaries to the state’s elections several years ago — hope to give South Dakota voters another opportunity to vote to amend the state Constitution to bring open primary elections for major state political races.

The group calls themselves South Dakota Open Primaries (SDOP) and they are in the process of circulating petitions to get their proposal before South Dakota voters.

The South Dakota Secretary of State’s office approved the petition for the ballot measure earlier this year.

SDOP hopes to gather the needed number of signatures to place their proposed Constitutional amendment before voters on the 2024 ballot.

The organization will need more than 35,000 signatures from registered South Dakota voters by May 7, 2024. That number is 10% of the total vote for governor in the last gubernatorial election.

SDOP’s goal is to gather up to 50,000 signatures, according to Joe Kirby, the chairperson of the organization, because oftentimes many petitions are found to be invalid because of errors made by either individuals collecting signatures or individuals signing the petitions.

Kirby said the state’s election system remains broken and it’s time to try once again to fix it.

He said SDOP hopes to give voters a chance to approve an amendment to the state Constitution that would create a single South Dakota primary.

“There would no longer be a Republican primary or a Democrat primary,” Kirby said. “It’s based on two main arguments — number one, fairness: all taxpayers should be able to vote in the primary election. Currently, independents don’t get to vote and there’s only one election, in reality, in South Dakota. There’s only one election that really matters and that’s been the Republican primary.

“Whoever gets nominated in the Republican primary, 90% of the time, they roll right into office,” he said. “In fact, there’s just a lack of competition in our government that’s very unhealthy.”

Kirby notes that 21 of the 35 senators currently serving in the South Dakota Legislature were elected without a challenge from competing candidates.

A second argument presented by the SDOP is the need for greater competition in the state’s elections.

“We want to open up the primaries so there’s more competition and the candidates are encouraged to speak to all voters, not just a partisan constituency,” he said. “The whole idea is we’ll get more competitive elections and better results.”

According to SDOP’s website, the organization’s initiative would establish a top-two open primary system for the following elections: U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Governor, State Legislature, and county elective offices. In each race, all the candidates would compete in a single primary open to all South Dakota voters. The two candidates that receive the most votes would advance to the general election. The ballot would continue to indicate the party affiliation, or lack thereof, for each candidate.

SDOP further states that it believes “that primary elections in South Dakota should be open to all voters regardless of political party affiliation. Under our current system, too many South Dakotans are excluded from the primary process.”

According to polling conducted by SDOP, 67% of South Dakotans favor the idea of open primaries.

Kirby joined other South Dakotans back in 2016 to bring Amendment V before voters. This, too, was an effort to bring open primaries and nonpartisan voting to South Dakota.

“That proposal removed the party labels so you wouldn’t know who’s a Democrat, who’s a Republican, who’s an Independent,” he said.

That measure failed with 55% of voters casting ballots against it in 2016. Had it been approved, Amendment V would have changed the state’s Constitution to allow all qualified South Dakota voters, regardless of party affiliation, to vote for any candidate of their choice and the two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general election.

Under Amendment V, for certain offices where more than one candidate is elected at the general election, the number of candidates advancing to the general election would be double the number of seats to be filled.

Again, this effort to amend the South Dakota Constitution failed.

“The opponents mainly focused on the non-partisan portion of our proposal,” he said. “A lot of them said they liked the open primaries project, but they didn’t like the removal of party labels. So, a group of us have been trying to bring it back and put it on the ballot for a number of years and we think we can get it done this time.”

Amendment V sought to bring a non-partisan system similar to Nebraska’s to South Dakota.

“Some people thought it would be a good idea, but it turned out to be not very marketable in South Dakota,” Kirby said.

The stars seemed aligned for SDOP to find success in its efforts, he said, because South Dakota’s dominant political party favors the idea.

“Many of the Republican leaders are concerned about the direction the Republican Party has gone. In 2022, they lost control of their party convention in Watertown. The secretary of state was thrown out; they almost lost their lieutenant governor; the attorney general barely snuck by,” Kirby said, “so many of the party leadership has basically told us, ‘we can’t come out and support you publicly, but we kind of hope you’ll be successful.’”

In his personal blog,, Kirby lays out in detail why open primaries are needed in South Dakota and uses the term “illegitimate” to describe the state’s current election system.

“We inherited an election system that no longer seems fair or appropriate. It is dominated by two political parties whose relevance is diminishing,” he states. “The parties control our state election laws and the process for running elections. They make the rules and hold their own primary elections at public expense.”

Kirby writes that, “for the most part, Republicans put forward candidates beholden to the political establishment and the Democrats do the same. No one is motivated to prioritize what regular South Dakotans want.

“At the same time, tens of thousands of South Dakota voters have chosen to not affiliate with either party. Many of them are young people, turned off by the bickering of their parent’s political parties,” he states. “So, they are punished by having little if any influence on who represents them in Pierre or D.C.”

This type of election system isn’t democratic and wasn’t contemplated by the founding fathers, according to Kirby.

“It doesn’t derive from the Constitution. It evolved politically long ago and may have worked okay in the mid-20th century when politics were mostly conducted out of the public eye. But then the world changed,” he states in his blog. “Politics got more transparent and intense with the arrival of the internet, social media and 24/7 news. Now we can all see that something is seriously wrong with our political system. Thank goodness, we can do something about it.”

Kirby told the Plain Talk of a typical election scenario in South Dakota and how open primaries would bring fairness to the process. He noted how all candidates for, say governor, would run against each other in a single June South Dakota primary.

“There might be half a dozen candidates, maybe three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent,” he said. “All registered voters would get to vote in the primary. That seems fair since the public pays for those primary elections. The two candidates with the most votes would advance to the November general election.”

Kirby said there likely will be highly partisan Republican citizens who will oppose giving all citizens the ability to vote in what has been their private Republican primary.

“They’ll say, ‘that’s where we pick our candidate.’ Our answer to that is ‘you don’t pay for it. Taxpayers fund this primary election. If you wanted to have a private election and fund it yourself, go ahead, but that’s not what we’re talking about,’” he said. “This is a state-funded election. Why shouldn’t it be open to all voters?”

Recent happenings in state government, particularly within the South Dakota Legislature, demonstrate why it’s time for open primaries in the state, he added, although Kirby admits the last legislative session in Pierre wasn’t as “crazy” as some of the previous ones.

“It’s a constant battle within the (Republican) Party right now — the extreme right versus the more traditional Republicans,” he said, “and I think we’d all be better off if we just had more moderate elected officials who represent South Dakota values instead of extreme values.”

The current political structure in South Dakota, in which elected office holders are expected to adhere to strict political lines, discourages bipartisanship, Kirby added.

“It’s a bad structure. I think that anyone can see that if they approach it objectively,” he said. “Why not replace it with a better system?”

Open primaries will not change South Dakota from a red state to a blue state, Kirby said.

“We’re going to still have South Dakota conservative values, but we’ll get away from empowering hyper-partisans,” he said. “The current system gives too much power to people in the extremes. It’s been proven in blue states, too, that the South Dakota-type of system doesn’t work well there, either, because the left gets too much power.”

The full text of the SDOP’s proposed constitutional ballot initiative reads:

Be it enacted by the People of South Dakota:

That Article VII of the Constitution of South Dakota be amended by adding a NEW SECTION to read:

§ 4. A primary election held for the office of governor, a legislative office, a county office, the United States Senate, or the United States House of Representatives shall be open to all candidates and all qualified voters without regard to the candidates’ or voters’ party registration or affiliation, or lack thereof.

In a primary election covered by this section, each candidate must be listed on a single primary ballot regardless of the candidate’s political party. A voter may vote for any primary candidate regardless of the voter’s party affiliation or lack thereof. The two candidates receiving the highest number of votes cast in a primary election advance to the general election. If more than one candidate is to be elected to an office at the general election, the number of candidates advancing from the primary election is twice the number to be elected in the general election.

The general election ballot may only include those candidates advancing from the primary election. The legislature may, by law, establish procedures for replacing a candidate who advanced from the primary election but will not participate in the general election due to death, withdrawal from the race, or disqualification.

A candidate may select the name of a political party to be listed next to the candidate’s name on the primary ballot. The same political party designation shall appear next to the candidate’s name on the general election ballot if the candidate advances to the general election.

Both the primary and general election ballots must state that a candidate’s indicated political party designation does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the candidate by the political party designated.

The legislature may establish any necessary procedures to implement this section.

If any provision of this section or the application thereof to any person or circumstance is held invalid, such invalidity will not affect any other provision or application of the section that can be given effect without the invalid provisions or applications, and to this end the provisions of this section are severable.


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