In a legislative session jammed with efforts to take rights away from South Dakotans, one bill would have dramatically improved the way our top leaders are elected.
Senate Bill 40, which as previously written would have changed how the two major parties select the state’s top constitutional officers, was gutted by the House this week after it had passed the Senate. Now the bill goes back to the Senate for consideration of those changes.
Presently, the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, school and public lands commissioner, and public utilities commissioners are selected by delegates attending the state political conventions. South Dakota is one of only three states that so restricts voter rights. In its earlier form, SB 40 would have required candidates for those offices to be selected at a primary election, with the exception of the lieutenant governor candidate, who would be chosen by the party’s candidate for governor.
Unfortunately, the House deleted all of the bill except for the part allowing governor candidates to choose their own running mates.
That means political control in many races will likely stay with party insiders. At the June 2022 Republican convention, 687 Republican delegates were involved in nominating Attorney General Marty Jackley and ultimately winning him a four-year term.
Actually, about 360 South Dakotans elected Jackley as he emerged from the convention on a 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent margin over David Natvig. Jackley had no opponent in the general election, because Democrats did not field one.
In a state that presently does not have a competitive Democratic Party, almost all candidates surviving the state Republican convention are assured of winning the general election.
State Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, has been a strong defender of the convention system, primarily because he was just elected chair of the state Republican Party. His influence would have been dramatically reduced by the earlier version of SB 40.
The current process also gives outsized representation to the political fringes. Republican far-right activists, which may account for about 20 percent of South Dakota’s voters, almost succeeded in saddling Gov. Kristi Noem with a lieutenant governor not to her choosing.
Incumbent Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden had to scramble to beat Steve Haugaard on a 56 percent to 44 percent convention vote. Haugaard challenged Noem for governor in the primary and lost about 76.4 percent to 23.6 percent, indicating the general Republican Party’s disdain for Haugaard’s politics.
Then there is the Secretary of State’s Office, now occupied by Monae Johnson.
Incumbent Republican Steve Barnett had served eight years as state auditor and four years as secretary of state. He was competent and well respected.
But because he did not subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the 2022 election was stolen from President Donald Trump and that voter fraud lurked everywhere, he was a target of the right wingers, and apparently some more mainstream delegates.
Johnson beat him 61 percent to 39 percent at the convention. Odds are, Barnett would have won a statewide primary because of better name recognition and broader Republican Party participation. There’s also less statewide belief in election conspiracies.
Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, SB 40’s prime sponsor in the Senate, summed it up well as he testified before the House State Affairs committee on Wednesday.
“What we’re not getting right now is grassroots representation,” he said. “That is not how a healthy republic elects its leaders.”
He said many constituents have been asking, “Why can’t I vote for my attorney general candidate? The people of South Dakota want to vote for their leaders, and how can we as a healthy republic tell our neighbors, ‘No, you can’t vote for your leaders in a primary election?’”
He noted that county sheriffs, auditors and treasurers all face primary elections, but many statewide candidates do not.
Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, the prime sponsor in the House, outlined the absurdity of the present system. He noted that in the 2022 Republican primary, there were 119,000 Republican voters overall. In Minnehaha County, 18,500 voted and 71 percent supported Noem while 29 percent backed Haugaard.
But at the state convention, 69 percent of Minnehaha County’s delegates dissed Noem by supporting Haugaard over Rhoden for attorney general. “Folks, that’s not right,” Chase said. “That’s not a true representation of the people back home that they are supposed to be representing.”
Senate Bill 40, in its previous incarnation, would have given power back to the people. For once, legislators should consider giving their constituents more influence as opposed to continuing to take it away.
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