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Sioux Falls braces for new legislative redistricting fight, as rural and town collide

The current legislative map finds 9 districts to intersect partially or wholly with South Dakota's largest city. If the lines stay exactly the same, that number will grow to 10.

Pumpkin Center, S.D., sits on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, on the far western edge of Minnehaha County and is included in the so-called "conurbation" area denoting the boundary for legislative districts for the city of Sioux Falls. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

PUMPKIN CENTER, S.D. — A dozen miles west of Sioux Falls in rolling farm country sits Pumpkin Center.

The old roadside stop for westward travelers is gone. But trucks hauling harvested corn still lumber past, as ducks flap overhead.

And a reporter seeking the outer limits of the so-called "conurbation" area of Sioux Falls, where the city ends and the country begins for voters, stared down a rural road by any other name.

"I really don't know if there was gerrymandering because I wasn't in the room," said De Knudson, a former Sioux Falls councilwoman, on Monday, Sept. 27, about the last time lawmakers drew legislative lines. "I trust our legislators and our state."

"But ..." and she pauses.


Few want to say the "G" word in South Dakota. It's a funny word, with an indicting tone. But many people feel the districts in Sioux Falls are off, how they run like a pinwheel out from the urban core to gobble up (and lean on) more conservative rural voters.

"As far as coming right out and saying, 'there's gerrymandering in South Dakota,' it's probably a little far-stretched to say yes it is happening," said Chad Skiles, chair of the Lincoln County Democrats. "But, boy, when you look at some of those maps and some of these boundary lines, especially in the Sioux Falls area, you can't help but least ask the question, 'why was this particular legislative district drawn the way it was?'"

When lawmakers on the redistricting committee arrive in Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls for a sub-committee meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28, at 6 p.m., they'll revisit a city at the heart of the once-a-decade redistricting fight.

When the current maps were approved at a special session in October of 2011, all but one Democrat in Pierre opposed the bill. That's because they didn't like what they saw in terms of political interference.

There was District 25, which stretches across northern Minnehaha County's rural communities, tiptoeing around Brandon northeast of Sioux Falls, and then crawling around to Sioux Falls' eastern side, resting just blocks from I-229 in the city's center.

Another — District 9 — eats up all of western Minnehaha County and also folds east into the city, nearly to the airport. There's also District 10, which starts in northeastern Sioux Falls near Washington High School only to inexplicably jump out to neighboring Brandon.

State law requires districts to be "compact, contiguous territory" and based on the most recent U.S. Census data. They're also to show "respect for geographical and political boundaries" like county and city lines.

But Sioux Falls' lines seem to break those rules.


Two districts even stretch like columns down Sioux Falls, with District 12 running from McKennan Park near the city's core all the way past the Lincoln County line. Similarly, District 13 starts north of Sanford USD Medical Center near downtown and runs south past the Lincoln County line, encompassing a veritable farm site owned by Rep. Arch Beal.

Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, helped lead the redistricting in 2011 and sits again on the committee in 2021 and has defended the process noting multiple times, "We never got sued."

But Knudson, who is helping to lead the Drawn Together ballot initiative that'll potentially come to voters in 2022, supports pulling the redistricting process from legislators who stand to gain (or lose) on its merits.

"I do think it would be better to have this done by an independent commission," Knudson said.

The 2011 lines didn't portend an immediate loss for Democrats. In the 2012 election, the party held onto its 24 seats in Pierre (compared to just 11 today). In fact, the party's biggest losses came two years earlier in the 2010 midterm elections, when they'd lost a third of their 38 seats.

But what's transpired over the last decade is not merely far fewer Democrats, but Republican candidates who've drifted further to the political right, as well. Political observers say it's hard to find politically moderate Republicans in Sioux Falls in the ilk of a Dave Knudson, De's husband, who was GOP Senate majority leader and in 2007 opposed a statewide abortion ban.

In their place has been a squad of uber-conservative lawmakers, including Rep. Rhonda Milstead and Sen. Maggie Sutton, the prime sponsors of an anti-transgender bill that was defeated largely at the behest of Sioux Falls business community interests.

Other Republican legislators for Sioux Falls include Reps. Bethany Soye, representing District 9, and Jon Hansen, who represents District 25 from his home outside Dell Rapids. Both have frequently given chorus to a range of social conservatism platforms in Pierre.


In January, days before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol , Rep. Steve Haugaard, a former House Speaker who represents District 10, appeared at a stop-the-steal rally in Sioux Falls.

And the city's voters have noticed. A year ago, De and Dave moved from District 14 on the city's southwestern side to downtown's District 15, a pocket of blue voters in the heart of a city.

"I do know that it is one of the few districts that has the ability to elect any Democratic legislators," said Knudson, who still is a registered Republican and describes herself as "moderate."

In a growing region like Sioux Falls, it's common for cornfields to buttress condominiums or combines to share space on a highway's shoulder with spandex-clad cyclists. But the 2020 U.S. Census data will exacerbate this rural-to-urban push.

Matt Frame, with the Legislative Research Council, says if the city simply maintained the current Sioux Falls metropolitan area lines, the number of legislative districts would move from nine to 10 — that means three more Sioux Falls lawmakers, and three fewer out-state representatives.

And what that could do to maps is anyone's guess.

"What I'm hearing is there is going to be similar things happening," said Skiles, of the Lincoln County Democrats. "How they tend to incorporate both rural and urban areas into all of these districts. And that's a little troubling."

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