Costs and other concerns about low-turnout South Dakota primary spark thoughts of change

Makenzie Huber
South Dakota Searchlight
Minnehaha county auditor Leah Anderson assists ballot counters during primary day on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at the Minnehaha County Administration building in Sioux Falls.

Every ballot cast in Lyman County for Tuesday’s primary election was worth $134 in taxpayer money, Lyman County Auditor Kalli Houchin estimated. 

Only 67 people voted in the south-central South Dakota county — just over 6% of registered voters. Yet the county spent about $9,000 on ballot printing, hiring election workers and other costs.

In Hughes County, which includes the capital city of Pierre, each of its 304 ballots cast was worth roughly $70 in taxpayer funds. The county had less than 5% voter turnout.

Turnout across South Dakota in the primary was historically low at 17% — the lowest percentage since the state began combining presidential primaries with other primary races in 2000.  among Republicans and 7% among Democrats, independents and non-politically affiliated voters (who are lumped together in the data because all of them are allowed to vote in Democratic primaries).

“If I could just go out and drag people in to vote, I would, but that’s not something you can do,” Houchin said.

Over half of South Dakota counties didn’t break 20% voter turnout, even though every county held a fully staffed primary day costing its taxpayers thousands of dollars. Sanborn County had the lowest voter turnout at 4.84%, with 31 ballots cast.

Hughes County has five polling places, which are open to any registered voter in the county. Three are in Pierre while two are in rural areas. One person voted at the Harrold location, said Auditor Thomas Oliva, and 13 voted at the Blunt location. Yet the county paid six election workers $18 an hour for those two sites.

“It’s not what I like to see, but it’s something that has to be provided for the people as a fundamental right,” Oliva said. “As a taxpayer, not an auditor, I’m not very happy and I think it was a waste.”

Frustration with costs of poorly attended primaries could factor into a statewide ballot question this fall. Supporters of the open primaries measure say closed primaries such as those held only for Republicans . Open primaries would include all candidates for an office running in one primary, regardless of their party.

Boy scouts walk out to poll worker’s cars to carry in ballot boxes on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at the Minnehaha County Administration building in Sioux Falls.

Low voter turnout and Republican upsets

But the low voter turnout number “isn’t a fair gauge” of voter interest in this year’s election, Oliva said.

In Tuesday’s primary, there were no statewide Republican races to vote on: no intra-party challengers against U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, for example, and no presidential primary race since nobody filed to run against Donald Trump. The only statewide race on the Democratic ballot was the , which included three challengers with little chance of beating President Joe Biden. 

Additionally, there was a dearth of local contests. Democrats have struggled for years to find candidates in the state, so it’s rare to have a Democratic primary. But even among Republicans, there were 26 uncontested Republican legislative primaries. Counties that had the worst voter turnout, such as Lyman and Hughes, didn’t have a ballot for most Republicans in the county. Some Republican voters had only little-known races to vote on, like choosing delegates for the state party convention.

This year was the first in Todd County Auditor Barb DeSersa’s 10-year tenure that her county hasn’t had a Republican primary ballot.

“It kind of makes you nervous that there weren’t contests this year,” DeSersa said. “I hope everybody hasn’t given up. It makes you wonder if people are hesitant to get involved with politics in today’s climate.”

The turnout of 27% for Republicans is actually good for a year like this with so little on the ballot, said Michael Card, associate professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Dakota, but it still leaves party nominees representing only a small slice of voters.

The most common strategy to increase voter turnout is to get voters interested in at least one race on the ballot — creating a sense of urgency or saliency that the results will impact them, Card added. That may have increased Republican turnout in some areas where legislative races included .

“Conflict gets people to go,” Card said. 

Conflict can also push moderate voters away. In this case, the Republican voters who did show up tended to vote for more ideologically conservative challengers,  across the state, according to unofficial results. That group included many “stalwart Republican” types, Card said.

“If there are competing visions and ideologies for candidates, people not going out to vote may mean the individuals who are selected aren’t representative of the overall population,” Card said, “because only the true partisans or politicos end up selecting who’s going to represent the party in the general election.”

Matt Ashley is handed his ballot during primary day on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at Embrace Church in Sioux Falls.

Non-voters show ‘disgust’ and ‘disenchantment’ with politics

Many of the counties that had the highest voter turnout in the state had nonpartisan issues on the ballot: Harding (40.89%) had a hotly contested school board race, Davison (40.79%) included a ballot question for Mitchell residents about dredging Lake Mitchell, and three counties — Gregory (39.47%), Tripp (37.4%) and Haakon (34.25%) — had ballot initiatives to ban vote-counting machines ().

Oliva said he sees the national political climate turning off moderate voters, which might explain low voter turnout even in counties that had hotly contested races.

Pennington County, the second most populated in the state, where there were several heated legislative races, had 16% voter turnout. The state’s most populated county, Minnehaha, had 10% voter turnout.

“It’s put a bad taste in so many people’s mouths and people are throwing their hands up — and not in a good way,” Oliva said. “They’re just not going to vote.”

The Augustana Research Institute’s  program is studying low voter turnout in Sioux Falls with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Fellows studying the issue conducted a survey of registered voters in the city who haven’t voted in recent years.

Suzanne Smith, associate vice president of enterprise data analytics and the Augustana Research Institute, mentors the fellows in their research. She said the biggest factor discouraging people from voting was attitudinal — a general “disgust” or “disenchantment” with politics.

Smith said a final report with recommendations to increase turnout is expected to be released at the end of this month. Preliminary ideas for the League of Women Voters include making better use of social media to encourage voting, communicating more with voters during non-election years to keep them registered and engaged, and using strategies to make voting part of the “social norm.”

“I think we all believe the way democracy works is we get to weigh in on the rules that govern our society – city, school, county, state,” Smith said. “Whether turnout is 6% or 26% of the population that’s voicing an opinion, it raises the question of if it’s representative of the will of the people. It’s on us as individuals to make sure the rules established do reflect what the bulk of the people in the community think.”

Auditors and experts across the state expect significantly higher participation in the Nov. 5 general election, with a presidential election, a U.S. House race, and  among the items on the ballot.