Secretary of State Jason Gant had predicted that turnout in South Dakota's primary would be a better-than-average 50%. Statewide, turnout was 20.5%, about the same disappointing number in the first primary Gant ran in 2012. The only counties in which turnout broke 50% were Harding and Sully. A majority of counties (40 out of 66) failed to break 30%. The most populous counties and the most Indian counties generally had the lowest turnout:
Why was turnout so dismal? Gant says thunderstorms and frontrunners kept people from the polls. I can't speak to South Dakota hardiness in the face of some wind and rain, but when I grab precipitation totals for the last 24 hours for the 47 counties with reporting stations and compare them to total voter turnout, I get a correlation of –0.036, which means there isn't one.
Comparing the turnout in the Republican and Democratic races chips away at Gant's hypothesis. Most people paying attention knew that the Republicans had two frontrunners coasting to victory: Mike Rounds scored my predicted 55%, with Larry Rhoden and Stace Nelson nowhere close at 18%. Dennis Daugaard beat Lora Hubbel 4 to 1. Republicans managed 31.4% turnout statewide. Democrats had the only interesting statewide race, with none of us sure whether Joe Lowe's early start and passion would beat Susan Wismer's accountantly reserve and party connections. Wismer prevailed 55.5% to Lowe's 44.5%. Turnout among Democrats and the Independents we invite to our primary was 11.0%.
So what's the real reason turnout was low? Perhaps we should consider the obvious: Secretary Gant runs crappy elections and wants less turnout, especially among folks who don't vote Republican. I have received more than one report that election workers were not initially handing Democratic ballots to Independent voters. One commenter tells me his Independent wife was explicitly and repeatedly denied a Dem ballot. Secretary Gant apparently either failed to make sure county officials were training election officials to follow the rules or chose to nudge Independent participation downward by requiring Indies to know they could have a Democratic ballot rather than handing them all ballots to which they had a right to mark as the default action.
Voters also appear to have trouble getting correct information about where to vote. Mark Millage complained to the Minnehaha County Commission yesterday that he received a postcard from Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz showing the wrong legislative district and wrong polling place. The Secretary of State's office also had the wrong data. Millage and his wife went to what they knew was the correct polling place but found they weren't on the rolls. They ended up having to cast provisional ballots.
Minnehaha County Commissioner John Pekas says the Millages' problems are more widespread than they should be:
...Pekas said Millage's story is similar to complaints he has heard about the Secretary of State's office sending post cards to voters that incorrectly listed addresses for polling places.
"There are some grave concerns about the quality of information being disseminated for voting places," Pekas said. He called it a challenge at both state and local levels. "When you go to vote, it should be correct. We need to take a good hard look at that," Pekas said [Peter Harriman, "Voter Expresses Frustration to County Commission," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.06.03].
Secretary Gant responds that the solution is for Minnehaha County is to get on board with his wonderful voting centers, which allow voters to drop by the polling place of their choosing. But networked voting centers don't solve the problem of the auditor and the Secretary placing voters in the wrong district and not handing them the right ballot.
Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth also raises the concern that voting centers have a net negative effect on turnout. Gant's project may give mobile folks more choices as to where to vote. But folks who don't have reliable transportation don't benefit from voting centers when they consolidate precincts and eliminate the nice little polling station they used to have just four blocks from their house.
And don't even get me started on Gant's partisan hackery and petition errors, which have allowed an illegitimate candidate on the ballot and undermined public confidence in the election process as a whole.
Secretary Gant has made explicit efforts to make it harder for South Dakotans not of his political persuasion to vote. Errors in elections have persisted under his regime, as shown by the missteps in Minnehaha County.
South Dakota Democrats, as we consider how best to deploy our resources for the general election, consider that the most important offices we fight for must include Secretary of State and county auditors. We have three weeks until convention to find a solid Secretary of State candidate to undo the errors and voter suppression wrought by the Gant regime, ills likely to continue under either Gant's lieutenant Patricia Miller or her challenger Shantel Krebs. Where we have races for county auditor (Brown, Day, Hutchinson, Marshall, Minnehaha, Moody, and Yankton), we must get behind reformers like Minnehaha County Democrat Tony Bartholomaus.
If Republicans like Gant are trying to depress voter turnout to protect their political interests, yesterday's dismal primary turnout suggests they are succeeding. Democrats, winning back the offices that run South Dakota elections would be an important step toward restoring public confidence and interest in voting.