Open primaries should be part of debate over candidate nominations
As the legislative session wound down, Republicans had a tough time deciding the fate of Senate Bill 40, a bill that originally called for primaries, rather than political party conventions, to decide on top state candidates. In the end, Republicans couldn’t agree on how to change the system.
In its original form, SB 40 called for a political party’s candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, school and public lands commissioner and public utilities commissioner to be chosen via primary. Currently they are chosen at a state convention. SB 40 also called for the governor to be able to choose the candidate for lieutenant governor. Currently the candidate for lieutenant governor is chosen by the convention as well.
Proponents of the bill said it’s best to give the decision on major party candidates to the voters in a primary. Opponents said that the grassroots of the political party, through its convention delegates from across the state, are the best ones to make that decision.
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Based on the testimony concerning SB 40, it seems that neither system is perfect. During testimony it was revealed that 1,400 of the 2,000 delegate positions for the 2022 Republican convention weren’t filled. Ten South Dakota counties had no representation at the convention.
Just as delegates fail to show up for the convention, voters fail to show up for party primary elections. According to opponent testimony, 70% of South Dakota voters didn’t participate in the 2022 primaries.
Each time they testified in favor of the bill, its sponsors denied that the legislation was a reaction to the 2022 Republican convention. Well, it sure looked like a reaction.
At the convention, David Natvig, a holdover from the less than spectacular administration of Jason Ravnsborg, almost defeated Marty Jackley for the nomination as attorney general. And, in a move dripping with irony, convention delegates nominated an election denier to run state elections with the nomination of Monae Johnson over incumbent secretary of state Steve Barnett.
Even the portion of the legislation dealing with the governor, rather than the convention, choosing the candidate for lieutenant governor, is a reflection of the 2022 Republican convention. At the convention, Gov. Kristi Noem had to make a direct plea to delegates to get them to choose Larry Rhoden over upstart lieutenant governor candidate Steve Haugaard.
Republicans were left with this mess because party conventions tend to draw a more rabid believer than regular party members. This may be another indication of the strength of the Freedom Caucus, a wing of the Republican Party fondly referred to as “wackadoodle crazies” by GOP Senate Leader Lee Schoenbeck.
The largest growing segment of voters in South Dakota are independents. They’re shut out of the Republican primary because they lack the right political party affiliation. Yet, as taxpayers, they get to pay for an election where they have been disenfranchised by the rules developed by lawmakers who are largely members of the Republican Party.
The Senate passed SB 40 on an 18-16 vote. In the House, where the Freedom Caucus has a larger contingent, the bill was amended to exclude the larger primary but include just the provision that the governor gets to pick the candidate for lieutenant governor. It was endorsed by the House on a 48-21 vote. In the last week of the session, the two chambers failed to reconcile what turned out to be wildly different versions of the same bill.
While they deny that SB 40 had its origins in the party’s reaction to its 2022 convention, its backers were on the right track by calling for a primary to select candidates for top positions on the ballot. Conventions, by their very nature, reek of political favors and backroom deals. That’s likely how the party ended up backing candidates like Ravnsborg and Johnson — not the finest moments in South Dakota political history.
While the call for a primary is a good one, it did not go far enough. The largest growing segment of voters in South Dakota are independents. They’re shut out of the Republican primary because they lack the right political party affiliation. Yet, as taxpayers, they get to pay for an election where they have been disenfranchised by the rules developed by lawmakers who are largely members of the Republican Party.
As for the Democratic Party, it allows independents to vote in its primaries. This is usually a hollow invitation as Democrats have a tough time fielding even one candidate for a statewide office, let alone two that would need to fight it out in a primary.
Because they dominate both chambers of the Legislature, SB 40 boiled down to how Republican candidates would be chosen. If, as proponents of SB 40 say, a primary allows voters to have a say in the nomination of candidates, that primary should be open to all voters. It shouldn’t be limited to a specific party that has the power to give itself the luxury of having the state pay for its candidate selection process.