Republicans gain in voter registration

The lead-up to the 2022 general election has generated renewed discussion about the Republican Party’s advantage in voter registration in the state. Political reporters including Bob Mercer and Jonathan Ellis have written about it recently.

South Dakotans have a tendency to think of our state as Republican, and that is true. We often don’t appreciate, however, the degree to which the Republican advantage has increased in recent years.

Jim Soyer

Longtime Governor’s Office staffer Jim Soyer, who passed away last year, began tracking the General Election day voter registration in 1978. He turned his data over to me when he retired and I have continued his practice. That data is available here. It shows that, at the conclusion of the Kneip/Wollman administration in 1978, South Dakota Democrats held a small advantage in voter registration – a margin of 1,579 votes. That quickly reversed with the 1978 election of Bill Janklow as governor and Larry Pressler as U.S. Senator – by the time Governor Janklow’s successor, George S. Mickelson, was elected in 1986, the Republican margin was 24,215 or 5.7%.

The next twenty years saw a gradual trend toward the Republicans, with Democrats losing ground and Independents gaining. The 2008 election saw a small movement back in favor of the Democrats, as the excitement of the Obama-Hillary primary brought in new voters. That year, the Republican advantage was 37,115 or 7.0%.

The Democrats last won in statewide races in South Dakota in 2008, when U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Public Utilities Commissioner Steve Kolbeck each won their final terms in office. Obama’s election in 2008, and the realignment of the national parties that saw the Democrats become an increasingly progressive, coastal party, initiated a period in which the fall in Democratic registration, and the increase in Republican registration, has accelerated.

By the 2022 general election, Republicans held an advantage of 145,052 or 24.3%, a huge increase from 2008.

Below are two line graphs, visualizing the trends since 1978 in both raw voter registration numbers and as percentages. The entire chart of data is available here.