The structure of the Government of South Dakota is based on that of the federal government, with three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The structure of the state government is laid out in the Constitution of South Dakota, the highest law in the state. The constitution may be amended either by a majority vote of both houses of the legislature, or by voter initiative.[1]

Executive branch

The Governor of South Dakota heads the executive branch of the state government.[2] The current governor is Dennis Daugaard, a Republican from Garretson. The state constitution gives the governor the power to either sign into law or veto bills passed by the state legislature, to serve as commander-in-chief of the state's armed forces, to appoint a cabinet, and to commute criminal sentences or to pardon those convicted of crimes.[3][4] The governor serves for a four-year term, and may not serve more than two consecutive terms.[5]


Map showing the 35 legislative districts of South Dakota from 2008. Every district elects one senator and two representatives to the state legislature.

The state legislature is made up of two bodies, the Senate, which has 35 members, and the House of Representatives, with 70 members. South Dakota is divided into 35 legislative districts,[6] with voters electing two representatives and one senator per district.[6] The legislature meets for an annual session which begins on the second Tuesday in January and lasts for 40 days.[7] it also meets if a special session is called by the governor.[6] The Republican Party currently holds majorities in both houses of the South Dakota Legislature. Currently, the Senate consists of 27 Republicans and 8 Democrats,[8] while the House of Representatives is made up of 58 Republicans, 12 Democrats [9] State law currently limits legislators to a maximum of four consecutive terms in the same house of the Legislature.[7][10]

Judicial branch

The judicial branch is made up of several levels. The state supreme court, with four justices and a chief justice, is the highest court in the state.[11] Below the supreme court are the circuit courts; 41 circuit judges serve in seven judicial circuits in the state.[11] Below the circuit courts are the magistrate courts, which deal with more minor criminal and civil actions.[11]

Federal representation

South Dakota is represented at the federal level by Senator Mike Rounds, Senator John Thune, and Representative Kristi Noem. All the federal representatives are all Republicans, it was the first time since 1961. South Dakota is one of seven states with only one seat in the US House of Representatives.[12]

In US presidential elections, South Dakota receives three votes in the electoral college, out of a total of 538.[13] Like most states, South Dakota's electoral votes are granted in a winner-take-all system.[14]

Native government

Native Americans' governments are significantly independent of the state and its local governments. For example, federal law forbids states and local authorities to tax Indian lands.[15]


South Dakota politics are generally dominated by the Republican Party, and the state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 — especially notable when one considers that George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, was from South Dakota.[16][17] In 2004, George W. Bush won the state's three electoral votes with 59.9% of the vote.

There are only five reliably Democratic counties in the state — most of them with primarily American Indian populations. Republicans have won the last seven gubernatorial elections and have controlled the legislature, with one brief interruption, for over thirty years. Democrats, however, have been successful in winning election to Congress from South Dakota, including former Senators Tom Daschle, James Abourezk, George McGovern, and Tim Johnson; and former Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

While President Bush received a lower vote percentage in 2004 than he did in 2000, he still received a very strong 60% of the popular vote. Part of the deviation had to do with record turnout driven by the intense Senate campaigns that year. As of 2016, Republicans hold a 15% voter registration advantage over Democrats[18] and hold large majorities in both the state House of Representatives[19] and Senate.[20] Additionally, all but one of the statewide elected officers are Republicans.

In the more than a quarter century between 1979 and 2005, two politicians, one a Republican and one a Democrat, dominated South Dakota politics. Republican Governor Bill Janklow served four terms as governor 1979-1987 and then from 1995 to 2003 followed by a brief partial term as a United States Representative 2003-2004. Janklow's career was ended by a motor vehicle manslaughter conviction causing his resignation from Congress. Democrat Tom Daschle was also a dominant figure in South Dakota politics, serving in Congress, 1979-2005. He first served eight years in the United States House of Representatives and then eighteen years in the United States Senate after his senate election in 1986. Over a period of ten years, he served both as minority leader and majority leader in the Senate. In 2004, he lost his Senate seat to a Republican, former United States Representative John Thune, who narrowly defeated Daschle by a 51%-49% margin. Daschle became the first Senate party leader in 52 years to lose re-election to his own Senate seat.

South Dakota has a history of voting out powerful members of the Senate who seek fourth terms. Former Commerce Committee Chairmam Larry Pressler lost to Congressman Tim Johnson in 1996, and 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern was defeated by Congressman James Abdnor in 1980. Abdnor was, in turn, defeated by Daschle in 1986.

Political geography

Map showing the counties of South Dakota

The Missouri River, bisects the state. The area east of the Missouri River (or "East River"), is generally more moderate, with views that are more in line with those found in its Midwestern neighbors, Iowa and Minnesota. "West River" is more conservative, with views that are generally more in line with those found in its western neighbors, Montana and Wyoming. Large exceptions exist to the East River-West River political generalizations, however. The strongest Democratic counties in the state are West River. These counties are located within Indian Reservations. The strongest Republican counties are located East River. These counties were primarily settled by Protestant Germans from Russia, and be they Mennonite, Lutheran, Baptist or Reformed, they vote overwhelmingly Republican. A large part of the western half of East River responds politically in the same fashion as West River. Many observers think that the James River Valley really is the political dividing line between East River political thought and West River political thought.

Recent elections

2006 election

In the 2006 midterm elections, little change occurred in South Dakota in statewide elections. The Republicans defeated the sole Democrat state officeholder previously elected statewide, but lost another statewide elected office to the Democrats. Otherwise all federal and state office holders were comfortably re-elected. The Democrats made a significant gain in the state senate, narrowing the Republican margin from 25–10 to 20–15, costing the Republican legislative leadership its two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature.

By referendum, the electorate rejected an abortion ban approved by the state legislature. 56% of the electorate voted to overturn the law, generally considered a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Additionally, the electorate rejected a proposed law permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and narrowly approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The prevailing side received a 52%–48% margin in both cases.

2008 election

Senator Tim Johnson defeated state Sen. Joel Dykstra on November 4, 2008. Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin defeated Rapid City businessman Chris Lien.

2010 election

In 2010, Republican Dennis Daugaard defeated Democrat Scott Heidepriem for governor,[21] and Republican Kristi Noem defeated incumbent Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin for South Dakota's at-large seat in the US House of Representatives.[22] Republican John Thune won a second term as US Senator, running unopposed in 2010.

2012 election

In 2012, Noem retained her seat with 57% of the vote and the state voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney over Democratic President Barack Obama by a margin of 18%.[23]

2014 election

Republican Dennis Daugaard won re-election with 70.47% over Susan Wismer with 25.43%. Mike Rounds won his campaign over Rick Weiland.[24]

U.S. Senators

Seat 1
Senator Took Office Left Office Party
Mike Rounds 2015 present Republican
Tim Johnson 1997 2015 Democrat
Larry Pressler 1979 1997 Republican
James Abourezk 1973 1979 Democrat
Karl E. Mundt 1948 1973 Republican
Vera C. Bushfield 1948 1948 Republican
Harlan J. Bushfield 1943 1948 Republican
William J. Bulow 1931 1943 Democrat
William H. McMaster 1925 1931 Republican
Thomas Sterling 1913 1925 Republican
Robert J. Gamble 1901 1913 Republican
Richard F. Pettigrew 1889 1901 Republican
Seat 2
Senator Took Office Left Office Party
John Thune 2005 present Republican
Tom Daschle 1987 2005 Democrat
James Abdnor 1981 1987 Republican
George McGovern 1963 1981 Democrat
Joseph H. Bottum 1962 1963 Republican
Francis H. Case 1951 1962 Republican
J. Chandler Gurney 1939 1951 Republican
Gladys Pyle 1938 1939 Republican
Herbert E. Hitchcock 1936 1938 Democrat
Peter Norbeck 1921 1936 Republican
Edwin S. Johnson 1915 1921 Democrat
Coe I. Crawford 1909 1915 Republican
Alfred B. Kittredge 1901 1909 Republican
James H. Kyle 1891 1901 Populist
Gideon C. Moody 1889 1891 Republican


  1. ^ "Article XXIII, Section 1, Constitution of South Dakota". South Dakota Legislature. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Article IV, Section 1, Constitution of South Dakota". South Dakota Legislature. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  3. ^ "Article IV, Section 4, Constitution of South Dakota". South Dakota Legislature. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Article IV, Section 3, Constitution of South Dakota". South Dakota Legislature. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  5. ^ "Article IV, Section 2, Constitution of South Dakota". South Dakota Legislature. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c "The South Dakota Legislature: An Overview" (PDF). State of South Dakota. Retrieved December 3, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b http://legis.sd.gov/Statutes/Constitution/DisplayStatute.aspx?Type=Statute&Statute=0N-3-6&cookieCheck=true
  8. ^ http://legis.sd.gov/Legislators/Legislators/Roster.aspx?Body=S&Session=2015&cookieCheck=true
  9. ^ http://legis.sd.gov/Legislators/Legislators/Roster.aspx?Body=H&Session=2015&cookieCheck=true
  10. ^ http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/south-dakota-s-term-limit-laws-under-question/article_5590bef2-12fb-11e0-a770-001cc4c002e0.html
  11. ^ a b c "UJS Structure". South Dakota Unified Judicial System. Retrieved December 3, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Member Information". Office of the Clerk - United States House of Representatives. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  13. ^ "U.S. Electoral College - 2008 Presidential Election". www.archives.gov. Retrieved 2008-12-15. 
  14. ^ "U.S. Electoral College - Frequently Asked Questions". www.archives.gov. Retrieved 2008-12-15. 
  15. ^ ONEIDA TRIBE OF INDIANS OF WIS. V. VILL. OF HOBART, 732 F.3d 837 (7th Cir. 2013) (“Because federal law forbids states and local authorities to tax Indian lands, the tribe can't be forced to pay the assessment decreed by the challenged ordinance if the assessment is a tax.”).
  16. ^ "Presidential General Election Graph Comparison - South Dakota". www.uselectionatlas.org. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  17. ^ "McGOVERN, George Stanley, (1922-)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  18. ^ "Voter Registration Tracking". South Dakota Secretary of State. Retrieved February 3, 2016. 
  19. ^ "Official Listing - South Dakota Representatives - 2016". State of South Dakota. Retrieved February 3, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Official Listing - South Dakota Senators - 2016". State of South Dakota. Retrieved February 3, 2016. 
  21. ^ "South Dakota's Governor-elect Thanks Voters". KELO-TV. Archived from the original on 2010-11-07. Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  22. ^ "Western SD Delivers Votes for U.S. Rep-Elect Noem". KELO-TV. Archived from the original on 2010-11-07. Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  23. ^ "Statewide Results". South Dakota Secretary of State. Retrieved December 7, 2012. 
  24. ^ http://electionresults.sd.gov/resultsSW.aspx?type=SWR&map=CTY

External links