Low primary turnout sparks concern

By Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight
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 percent 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 percent voter turnout.
Turnout across South Dakota in the primary was historically low at 17 percent — the lowest percentage since the state began combining presidential primaries with other primary races in 2000. Turnout was 27 percent among Republicans and 7 percent 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
Over half of South Dakota counties didn’t break 20 percent 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 percent, 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 disenfranchise large numbers of voters. Open primaries would include all candidates for an office running in one primary, regardless of their party.
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 presidential primary, 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 percent 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 candidates from rival factions of the party.
“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, ousting a group of 14 incumbents 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.”
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 percent) had a hotly contested school board race, Davison (40.79 percent) included a ballot question for Mitchell residents about dredging Lake Mitchell, and three counties — Gregory (39.47 percent), Tripp (37.4 percent) and Haakon (34.25 percent) — had ballot initiatives to ban vote-counting machines (each of which failed). 
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 percent voter turnout. The state’s most populated county, Minnehaha, had 10 percent 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.”
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