South Dakota Senate committee wants to axe convention primary process

A bill that would allow the Governor to select the Lieutenant Governor, and put all other statewide offices on the primary ballot, cleared its first legislative hurdle on Monday.
Senator David Johnson (R-Rapid City) testifies in favor of SB 40, which would put every...
Senator David Johnson (R-Rapid City) testifies in favor of SB 40, which would put every statewide office in South Dakota on the primary ballot.(Austin Goss DNN/KOTA)
Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 1:31 PM MST
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PIERRE, S.D. - Members of the Senate State Affairs committee want to take all elected offices out of the convention process, and put them on the primary ballot.

Senate Bill 40, being carried by Sen. David Johnson (R-Rapid City), would “revise the process for nominating candidates,” putting every statewide office on the primary ballot that is not already there.

Currently, party nominees for statewide offices from Lieutenant Governor to Attorney General to the Commissioner of School and Public Lands are decided in a convention, for both Democrats and Republicans. If passed, the Governor would get to pick their Lieutenant Governor, and all other offices would be put on the ballot.

Johnson amended the bill during Monday morning’s committee meeting so that it would also include the State Treasurer, the Public Utilities Commissioners, the State Auditor, and the Commissioner of School and Public Lands.

“SB 40 is a bill that brings true grassroots back to the election process in South Dakota,” Johnson said. “We are talking about grassroots, your neighbors... It brings it to the public election process.”

The legislation was mentioned for consideration after a contentious Republican convention last year in Watertown, where Monae Johnson managed to oust incumbent Secretary of State Steve Barnett. Additionally, Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden was nearly defeated by Steve Haugaard, a long time foe of Gov. Kristi Noem.

Although the measure managed to pass the committee 6-3, it failed to gain the support of a number of key members on the committee. Senators David Wheeler (R-Huron), Erin Tobin (R-Winner), and Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) all voted against the bill.

“I like the gist of this bill, and it would have my full support if there was a way were if Democrats didn’t file a candidate in the primary they could use the convention to still nominate someone,” Nesiba said. “But I do think this is an improvement over our current system.”

South Dakota is just one of three states that still selects party nominees through the convention process. The other two are Indiana and Michigan.

Rick Weible, a GOP precinct committeeman from Brookings County, argued that the current system is grassroots because delegates to the convention are accountable to the voters who send them there. Weible also argued that the system is more fair given a statewide primary race would require candidates to raise tens of thousands of dollars to campaign across the state in a competitive way.

But Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown) countered by using an example from that June 2022 convention. He pointed to the fact that Clark County had voted overwhelmingly to support Kristi Noem over Steve Haugaard, when Noem received 82% of the vote. In the Republican convention just a few weeks later, three delegates from Clark County supported Haugaard over Rhoden, Noem’s choice for Lieutenant Governor, two to one.

“We need to clean this up, we need to let all South Dakotans have a say,” Schoenbeck argued.

Support for the bill has proven unpopular with active members of the South Dakota Republican party. Last month, members of the State Central committee voted to express their disapproval of the proposal, and instructed the body to deliver a letter to lawmakers of the disapproval.

Senate State Affairs Chair Casey Crabtree (R-Madison) said that they had not yet received a letter. GOP Chair John Wiik public offered the party’s disapproval in The Majority Report, a Republican party newsletter last week.

“We have explained to sponsors that our Central Committee is opposed,” Wiik wrote. “Our Central Committee and executive board is opposed to SB 40, in it’s current form, from becoming law.”