With Election Day just around the corner, South Dakotans are abuzz with discussion about Amendment V, a referendum that voters have the opportunity to vote on this year. Amendment V, if passed, will create nonpartisan primary elections in South Dakota. Under the current system of closed party primaries, voters must be registered under either of the two main parties to vote in either party’s separate primary. Supporters of Amendment V point out that this inhibits independents from exercising their constitutional right to vote; however, those who are against the amendment believe that this new, nonpartisan method of voting comes with a host of dangers. Amendment V would create an open primary in which anyone can vote, regardless of party ties. The top two candidates—again, regardless of party—will go on to the general election, and their party will not be indicated on the final ballot.
Two of Amendment V’s most zealous (and youngest) supporters, Josh Waltjer and Justin Otoski, believe so much in the value of this amendment that they have embarked on what they are calling the “Victory for Voters Tour”—a glamorous term for the two of them driving around South Dakota in an RV for a year to get the word out about Amendment V and to motivate people to vote “yes.”
Waltjer, a recent college graduate who gave up a scholarship to law school in order to get the word out through the “Victory for Voters Tour,” believes that Amendment V would put South Dakota at the forefront of fixing the broken political system in America. He explained that most Americans are frustrated with the party system and the way it creates two options, each of which is beholden to the party who nominated them. “I don’t believe candidates should have to rely on the letter next to their name in order to get elected,” Waltjer explained.
Waltjer indicated that the current closed primaries pose a major issue because they leave out the 43% of Americans who identify as independents. These people, he asserts, cannot exercise their constitutional right to vote because they have not chosen to register with a party. “No one should have to register with a private company in order to vote in a public election,” he explained.
If Amendment V is passed, South Dakota will not be the first state to instate open primaries. Nebraska has had this system in place for 80 years. Waltjer explained that Nebraska has the most competitive elections in the country because candidates cannot just cater to their party. Instead, under this system, they must cater to both the other party and independents. Nebraska’s state legislature has the highest approval rating in the nation (twice as high as South Dakota’s), and Waltjer believes that this is because open primaries allow candidates to be elected who are “public servants, not party servants” because legislators are accountable to not just their party bosses but to all constituents once they are elected.
Waltjer believes that young people in particular have every reason to vote “yes” for Amendment V. A whopping 59% of young people identify themselves as independents, and none of these people can vote in the primary election under the current closed primary system. He voiced the feeling of many young people, saying, “Party politics have failed our generation.” He pointed to presidential election as a prime example of this—a situation which has led many young people to choose not to vote in the presidential election this year. He believes this amendment will bring those who are not voting back. Also, the lack of collaboration in Washington has frustrated the young generation and old alike. Another supporter of Amendment V, Chuck Parkinson, was a part of Ronald Reagan’s administration. He told Waltjer that Reagan would be disgusted at the party system of today. Although Amendment V would only fix the problem in South Dakota, both of them believe that other states will soon follow.
Amendment V also has its vehement opposition, and Will Mortenson is at the forefront of this movement to preserve South Dakota’s constitution and keep the closed primary system. This amendment, he asserted, will hide party labels from voters, providing them with less information with which to make their choice. “I don’t see how democracy is improving by hiding information from voters,” he questioned, adding, “South Dakotans need to have as much information as possible when they vote.” He also worries that removing party labels will inherently favor whichever candidate has the most campaign money. “One thing you can be sure of, once you take off the party labels, it becomes a name ID race, all about who can get their name out the most,” Mortenson asserted.
Mortenson explained that California has this system now, and, being that California is a dark blue state, it puts two partisan Democrats on the ballot. In South Dakota, this system would likely put two partisan Republicans on the ballot in most districts, limiting voter choice in the actual election to just two people who, in this case, would likely have similar political ideology. He indicated that the current closed primary system in South Dakota allows for more than two candidates on the general election ballot—independents need only collect enough signatures to be included on the ballot. This system would prevent these independents from being added to the ballot in addition to the two mainstream party options.
Mortenson also has worries about the origin of the amendment, which he called a “constitutional money haul.” He explained that it was initiated by an out-of-state dark money group called Open Primaries that does not disclose its donors. Open Primaries is an organization out of New York that has written the “Vote Yes on V” campaign a 1.5 million-dollar check, making this campaign 80% funded by out-of-state money. Mortenson worries about this out-of-state influence, as South Dakota currently has a solid constitution, a balanced budget, and a good quality of life. Additionally, this type of amendment is supposed to fix partisan gridlock, which occurs in Washington, but not South Dakota. Out-of-state groups do not understand this. “We don’t want to be anybody’s guinea pig,” he explained, as Arizona and Oregon have both recently rejected this new system of voting. “If this passes, we are sending the message that if you have 1 million dollars, you can change our constitution.”
Waltjer encourages college students to vote “yes” on Amendment V so that South Dakota can be at the forefront of fixing the partisan issue in the U.S. by first fixing it in our state. He indicated that there are several states waiting to see if it passes in South Dakota before they attempt to get it on their ballot in 2018. Mortenson believes that college students should take pride in the great state that South Dakota is and vote “no” on Amendment V because it was inspired and mainly funded by an out-of-state group with hidden donors and hidden interests. He explained that this group is “looking for a solution to out-of-state problems in South Dakota itself.” Above all, college students should educate themselves before making their choice, as this is a crucial part of American history during which Amendment V could have immense effects.
Annika van Oosbree