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Nonpartisan Primaries

South Dakota's Major Step Toward Nonpartisan Primaries

The recent qualification of South Dakota’s top-two primary election measure marks a significant step forward in nonpartisan primary reform, which is crucial for a more representative democracy

Alana Persson
Digital Marketing Associate
May 24, 2024

South Dakota’s top-two primary election measure officially qualified last week, making it the second state with a nonpartisan primary initiative on the ballot this November. Nevada’s top-five measure has already qualified, and five more states are pursuing similar measures this year to abolish party primaries, including Idaho, Colorado, and Montana.

This success in South Dakota is a testament to the hard work and dedication of South Dakota Open Primaries. We extend our deepest gratitude to everyone involved in making this possible. Unite America is proud to have supported such a crucial initiative to create a more functional and representative democracy.

Why does South Dakota need nonpartisan primaries?

South Dakota’s primaries are currently closed to independents, meaning that 25% of registered voters cannot participate in the primaries that often decide who will serve as their representatives. 

In 2022, only 4 out of 39 state legislative races were competitive. Research from the Unite America Institute finds that just 13.5% of all the state’s eligible voters effectively elected their lower house. Under current law, South Dakotans who do not register with a political party are denied the right to vote in all primary elections, as the state’s federal and state primary elections are "closed." If voters register as a Democrat or Republican, they may only vote for candidates from their party in primaries. South Dakota is one of only 15 states holding fully closed primaries.

Exacerbating the problem, very few general elections in South Dakota are competitive, and most races are effectively determined in the GOP primary. Every federal and statewide elected official is a Republican, and 90% of state legislators are Republicans. Thus, a large majority of the state’s 151,263 registered Democrats are also barred from the most consequential election (Republican Primary), including all Democrats for federal and statewide offices. In other words, under current rules, about one-half of South Dakota voters cannot participate in the only elections that matter.

The Solution and Path Forward

If voters pass the ballot measure in November, South Dakota will move to a top-two nonpartisan primary election system for all congressional, statewide, legislative, and county offices. The initiative will give a more meaningful voice to all South Dakota voters, especially the 150,000 independents who cannot participate in the GOP primary. 

“A lot of voters are struggling to find a meaningful vote,” said De Knudson, a former Sioux Falls city councilor and self-described moderate Republican who serves as treasurer for South Dakota Open Primaries. “Reform has to start with the voters. People who are in office are glad to be there and not very interested in changing the system that elected them, right?”

As of this week, reform is officially in the voter’s hands. With enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, voters can voice their views on this reform come November. More broadly speaking, of all the important measures on the 2024 ballot in states across the nation, primary reform could have the biggest impact on American democracy — with the potential to affect 19  million voters, give millions of independents the right to vote in primaries and liberate 45 members of Congress from the perverse incentives of party primaries.

To learn more about how primary reform can lead to a more representative and functional government, check out Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano's new book, The Primary Solution.