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Hard Sell for Ballot Measures: Mapping Classical Conservatism by County

Last updated on 2012.11.12

In classical political parlance, liberals favor change, while conservatives prefer to stick with the status quo.

Let's apply that oversimplification to how South Dakota voted this week on ballot issues. Given four amendments, two referenda, and one initiated measure, we voted for two amendments, one fiddling with the formula for disbursements from the state cement plant trust fund, the other a bit of feel-good campaign-fodder requiring us to balance our state budget... just as we have without official exception 133 years straight. We rejected everything else, including significant policy changes in education, sales tax, and corporate welfare. That's pretty clearly a cautious conservative voting pattern.

Now let's break that down by county. On the seven ballot issues, Yes meant change, No meant status quo. If your county voted Yes less than the state average, your county is more conservative than the rest of South Dakota (which means you and your neighbors are somewhere to the right of Grover Norquist).

So here's the list of the most conservative counties in South Dakota, as measured by their propensity to vote No on the 2012 ballot measures:

County average percentage points below State "Yes"
Harding -11.0
Jones -9.4
Haakon -8.7
Sanborn -8.0
Bon Homme -7.5
Campbell -7.0
Jerauld -6.8
Perkins -6.8
Aurora -6.7
Douglas -6.6

Bon Homme and Douglas are the only two counties out of that batch with populations over 3000 (and Douglas beats that number by 2). With the arguable exception of Bon Homme, every one of these counties has seen steady population decline over the last 30 years.

By the same metric, here are the most liberal counties in South Dakota:

County average percentage points above State "Yes"
Shannon 8.0%
Todd 4.4%
Brookings 3.5%
Lincoln 3.3%
Clay 3.1%
Pennington 2.8%
Union 2.6%
Minnehaha 1.5%
Buffalo 1.3%
Lawrence 1.1%

Only two of these counties, Todd and Buffalo, have populations under 10,000. All but Clay and Buffalo have increased population over the last thirty years.

Click on your county in this map to see how you and your neighbors stack up on the ballot-measure conservatism metric. (Blue means higher-than-average Yes votes, which we read here as a sign of liberal openness to change; red means lower-than-average Yes votes, which we read here as traditional conservative resistance to change.)

Take this amateur political geography for whatever you think it's worth. But the numbers on our ballot measures support what our daily experience suggests: it's hard to convince South Dakotans to change. We find openness to change, as embodied in willingness to vote yes on this year's ballot measures, among the folks who've moved to the big towns, as well as among our increasingly populous Lakota neighbors.


  1. grudznick 2012.11.11

    Maybe it means the people in those counties are the most out of touch with reality. And there are a couple of counties with a lot of insane people on that list.

  2. rollin potter 2012.11.11


  3. Douglas Wiken 2012.11.11

    Republican percentage should be a sufficient metric for determining conservatism....whatever that means when those calling themselves conservatives are willing to toss out values for temporary partisan expediency and also pretend that values are facts. South Dakota runs on defective mythology.

  4. Donald Pay 2012.11.12

    This is one way of looking at it, but I don't think it tells you much. I think a more in-depth analysis is called for. The ballot measures are very different one from the other. Some were relatively non-controversial, others very controversial. Some were change in the conservative direction, some were change in the liberal direction, some were relatively neutral. Some had opposition from both liberal and conservative points of view, while having support from moderates. Some had strong opposition or support from large interest groups, and some had little support or opposition.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.13

    True: one of the things we had going for us in rejecting RL14 and RL16 was opposition from both sides of the spectrum. When I circulated petitions for each, I found I was able to make straight-faced pitches to self-identifying Republicans for rejecting each bill. Ignore the bills' origins, and conservatives could see 14 and 16 violated their principles.

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