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Effort in South Dakota Aims to Drop Parties

Posted by John Fernandes on March 29, 2016 at 10:08 AM

Effort in South Dakota Aims to Drop Parties

This article was written by Kristina Peterson for the Wall Street Journal.


SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—In South Dakota, where the shadow of Mount Rushmore’s presidents looms large, political parties could become nearly invisible on ballots.

The antiestablishment anger helping to propel the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders across the country is taking a different twist here: fueling support among disenchanted voters for a ballot initiative with the lofty goal of getting rid of both political parties—as much as possible, at least.

When South Dakotans turn up at the polls in November, they will be asked to decide whether to eliminate party labels next to most candidates’ names on future ballots. The amendment to the state constitution would also establish open primary elections, with the top two vote-getters from any party advancing to the general election in most races.

The proposal is controversial among the state’s politically connected, but has resonated with some voters tired of partisan bickering. South Dakotans already vote for many local city and school officials without party labels, and some are ready to extend that practice well up the ticket. The ballot initiative would remove affiliations for all federal, state and county elected offices, but not presidential candidates.

“It would make people look for something different: what does [the candidate] believe in?” said Sioux Falls resident Regie Poppenga, a Democrat who supports Mr. Trump for president. The two political parties “haven’t been serving our purpose,” said Mr. Poppenga, a paint contractor. “That’s why Trump and Sanders are doing so good.”

The initiative’s founders, businessman and 2014 Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland and Drey Samuelson, said the ballot measure’s inspiration is Nebraska. South Dakota’s neighbor to the south has had the country’s only nonpartisan, unicameral legislature since 1937. Nebraska elects legislators to its unicameral and some other offices through a top-two primary with no party labels. Lawmakers then choose the chamber’s speaker and committee chairs in a secret ballot vote.

“What that allows you to do is to vote for the person who you believe will be the most fair and most reasonable to work with,” said Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat, who noted it can take new colleagues weeks to learn other legislators’ party affiliations.

The structure creates incentives for lawmakers to work together without fear of retaliation from party officials, Mr. Morfeld said. He cited a vote in the Nebraska legislature last year in which 16 of the chamber’s 35 registered Republicans voted to override the GOP governor’s veto of a bill making Nebraska the seventh state to abolish the death penalty.

Unlike in Nebraska, which doesn’t elect partisan leaders in the unicameral, the South Dakota ballot measure wouldn’t tackle how lawmakers organize in Pierre, the state capital. Some say that would limit its effectiveness.

“If you want to try to tone down partisanship, electing people that don’t have the ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ behind their names is a good first step. But if, when they get to the legislature, they still organize along party lines, then you haven’t gained as much,” said Charlyne Berens, a former journalism professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

The initiative’s founders believe that changes to the election process will gradually affect the culture in Pierre. “It wouldn’t make any sense to be elected on a nonpartisan basis and then organize by party,” Mr. Samuelson said. “The legislature would have to figure that out.”

Some Republicans in South Dakota say the ballot initiative is simply a desperate ploy by Democrats to overcome their struggle to win statewide elected posts. When Republicans swept all statewide races in the 2014 midterms, they reduced the party of former Sens. George McGovern and Tom Daschle to its lowest representation since 1962.

“This is ‘we can’t achieve power, so we’re changing the rules,’ ” said Sioux Falls resident Joel Rosenthal, a tractor parts salesman and former chairman of the state’s Republican Party.

Other Republicans see no need to tinker with a system that already works.

“I don’t believe there’s a problem with our current nominating process,” said the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican John Thune.

The ballot measure’s enthusiasts said those with the most at stake in the current party system would naturally resist changing it. “People who make their living and have political clout based on the status quo, they don’t want to change it,” said Rick Knobe, a talk radio show host and former Republican mayor of Sioux Falls, now an independent.

South Dakota is one of 24 states that allows ballot initiatives approving new laws or changing the state constitution if enough residents’ signatures are gathered. South Dakota was the first to allow them at a statewide level, starting in 1898.

Apart from Nebraska, two other states—California and Washington—currently hold open primaries for congressional and statewide races in which the top two finishers advance to a general election regardless of party, though their party affiliations are listed. Louisiana has an open election in which two candidates advance to a runoff if no one wins 50% of the vote.

Efforts to establish open top-two primaries have been defeated in some other states, including Oregon and Arizona.

Groups working to establish open primaries said there are efforts under way in almost a dozen states, in addition to South Dakota, to expand the practice.

“Americans have lost our voice in our own political system and we are angry,” said Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, Inc., a nonprofit focused on overhauling primary elections. “Nonpartisan primaries are an important step in reclaiming control over our political system.”