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MERCER: SD voters get locked out in choosing key officials

Bob Mercer

PIERRE -- The Gant Affair, as it is becoming known, has brought to mind a question.

How does someone become the nominee for a statewide elected office? The answer might surprise you.

Here in South Dakota, our Legislature has prohibited voters from directly selecting the party nominees for election to nearly all of the statewide offices set forth in the state constitution.

State law only allows voters to directly choose the nominees for governor and for Congress.

That means primary elections aren't held for any of the other statewide elected offices: Lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, lands commissioner and public utilities commissioners.

State law dictates that all of those nominees be chosen by delegates to the political party conventions.

In other words, people who want to run for those offices can be on the ballot only if their party organizations allow them. And voters can choose only from the lists of candidates that the party organizations pick for the ballot (unless someone runs as an independent).

This closed system has been in place essentially since statehood.

It is true that voters choose delegates during the primary elections. Through that indirect route, voters have the potential to possibly shape the eventual nominations.

But what the system really does is concentrate the power with those relatively few people who want to go to the conventions, where - if the nomination hasn't already been decided beforehand -- they engage in the art of deal cutting that is hospitality-room politics.

There is nothing in the state constitution that dictates how the nominees shall be chosen for any of these offices.

Legislators, if they wanted, could change the laws during the 2013 session and require primary elections starting in 2014 for some or all of the remaining statewide offices.

In 2010, Republicans sent forth Jason Gant of Sioux Falls from their convention as the nominee for secretary of state, while the Democrats nominated Ben Nesselhuf of Vermillion. Both were state senators.

Two other candidates sought the Republican nomination. They were former Rep. Thomas Deadrick from Platte, who had been speaker of the House in the 2007-2008 term, and Teresa Bray, who was deputy secretary of state. It's impossible to know whether Republican voters would have decided differently in a primary election than convention participants did in selecting Gant.

But the political problem facing Republican leaders now is whether to stick with Gant as the nominee again in 2014.

Three daily newspapers, in Pierre, Rapid City and Watertown, already have published editorials very critical of Gant for allowing his director of operations, Pat Powers, to operate a campaign store on the Internet.

Powers recently resigned. The investigation by state Attorney General Marty Jackley found no evidence of criminal violations.

There was also Gant's decision to publicly endorse a candidate in a primary election. His handling of some matters hasn't helped him at the county courthouse level. Also, his animosity toward former Secretary of State Chris Nelson and his disdain toward the state Board of Elections further undermine the foundation of trust.

The Gant Affair gets down to gut-level politics. The last thing Republican leaders probably want is a Democrat elected in 2014 as secretary of state. The secretary of state is South Dakota's chief elections officer.

Aside from the 1930s and the 1970s, Republicans have dominated control of the constitutional offices.

In recent decades Democrats have shown an ability to pick off a seat when Republican incumbents have made missteps, specifically the offices of lands commissioner and treasurer.

There is a similar focus this year on the two seats up for election to the Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC contests in fact reflect the ultimate in insider selections. The two Republican candidates are Nelson and former Rep. Kristie Fiegen of Sioux Falls. Both are on the PUC, but neither was elected to the PUC.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard appointed Nelson in January 2011. Daugaard hired Dusty Johnson as his chief of staff. Just two months earlier, voters had re-elected Johnson to a six-year term on the PUC. He abdicated, creating a vacancy to which Nelson was named.

The second abdication came last summer, when Democrat Steve Kolbeck walked away from the last year-plus of his term and took a job with CenturyLink. The governor named Fiegen to that vacancy.

This summer Republicans nominated Nelson and Fiegen as their candidates for the 2012 general elections. Nelson is running for the remaining four years on Johnson's term, while Fiegen is running for a full six-year term.

Democrats nominated former Rep. Nick Nemec of Holabird and Matt McGovern of Sioux Falls to run against them. There was even a bit of a waiting game as Democrats delayed finalization of Nemec and McGovern so as to ensure they would get the right matchups against Nelson and Fiegen on the ballot.

South Dakota's voters didn't get a direct voice in any of those four nominees. They'll get to pick two in November. The commission has only three elected members.

Jackley, Nelson and Fiegen have shown good character and competence. Good choices don't excuse the practice, however. These insider deals, a description which sounds harsh but is accurate, are an extension of the closed convention-nomination process. If people want primaries instead for the 2014 elections, the Legislature would have to act in the 2013 session.

The reality is Republicans, in the Legislature and the governor's office, will hold the power to decide whether to change.

We shall see what the people tell our candidates for Legislature this fall about what they want, and then we shall see come January what our new lawmakers do.