Proposal making controversial changes to party conventions moves out of committee at SD Legislature

"I think what we're hearing the opponents say is that the people of South Dakota are not smart enough to pick their candidates," the bill's sponsor said.

Sen. David Johnson, of Rapid City, defends his proposal to change convention processes, which he says will bring more "grassroots" representation to the party's statewide officers, in front of the Senate State Affairs committee on Feb. 13, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Changes could be coming to how state parties select their candidates, with the role of precinct-level delegates greatly diminished.

In a 6-3 vote, the Senate State Affairs committee, made up of the top lawmakers in the chamber, moved Senate Bill 40 to the floor for consideration later this week.

Under current law, in the summer prior to each statewide election, a pool of party delegates comes together at their respective convention and selects every officer outside of the governor.

Those in favor of the existing structure say it is an important way to get people involved in precinct-level elected positions that can be important to turning out voters in the general election.

Critics of this current practice counter that it takes a decision that affects every voter and confines it to, at most, several hundred party faithful.


“I don't believe that this is in accordance with open elections or with the democratic-republic process that we experience in the United States of America,” said Sen. David Johnson, of Rapid City, the prime sponsor of the bill.

The proposal would change this practice, moving every constitutional office — attorney general; secretary of state; state treasurer; state auditor; commissioner of school and public lands; and public utilities commissioner — to a statewide primary.

The lone exception to the statewide primary under the proposal is the lieutenant governor, who will now be chosen by the governor rather than the current practice of being independently elected at the convention.

Despite the vote on the Senate State Affairs committee, the proposal faced strong criticism from the party delegates, whose power to vote at the convention would be stripped under the potential change.

Though the Republican Party’s state central committee earlier this year had instructed party leadership to write a letter opposing the change, Sen. Casey Crabtree, of Madison, the committee's chair, said they had not received that letter.

At the annual meeting of the State Central Committee on Jan. 14 in Pierre, delegates voted down a controversial bylaws change, leaving any reshaping of the party’s primary up to the state legislature.

These delegates, known as precinct committeepeople, are the elected officials closest to individual voters. Outside of voting at the convention, their duties mainly involve coordinating with legislative candidates in helping turn out the vote.

Several senators in favor of the legislation noted that these precinct committee positions often go unfilled; in the case that they do get filled, they can potentially go to activists in the party that do not always align with voters at large.

“A lot of these [delegate] positions aren't actually even being filled. And I believe it's important because, if you look at the voters of District 1 during the primaries, we had a really good voter turnout,” Sen. Michael Rohl, of Aberdeen, said. “We had people coming out and voting. So the fact that we had I think it was 8,000 people turn out to vote but we only had 25 people having a say [at the convention], giving this choice back to my neighbors that are actually out there voting is important.”


On the Republican side, opponents of the change generally argue that the proposal would make it even harder to fill these precinct-level positions.

Some involved on the party's right flank also criticized the proposal as favoring those already in power, who have advantages like name recognition and funding capacity.

Yet Johnson shrugged off these concerns: "What we're hearing the opponents say is that the people of South Dakota are not smart enough to pick their candidates for the Republican Party or Democratic Party," he said.

At the South Dakota Republican Party's annual meeting of the State Central Committee, delegates face a choice on who gets a say at party conventions, and who will lead the party into the future.

In addition, positions like state auditor and state treasurer do not attract many resources, meaning that the requirement for a petition signed by, “not less than one-half percent of the voters who voted for that party's gubernatorial candidate at the last gubernatorial election” might be a difficult mandate to meet.

On the Republican side in the coming election, that would mean just over 2,150 signatures, compared to 1,230 for the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Two Republicans on the committee, Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, and Sen. Erin Tobin, of Winner, voted against the proposal.

A separate concern came from Sen. Reynold Nesiba, of Sioux Falls, the lone Democrat on the committee, who worried that the proposal did not have the flexibility to allow Democrats, who often struggle to fill candidate positions lower down the statewide totem pole, a chance to pick their candidates at the convention.

“This bill would have my full support if there was a way that, if Democrats didn't file somebody in the primary, they could use the convention to still nominate someone,” Nesiba said.


Summer studies allow a group of lawmakers to gain context on important topics and bring in different sets of expertise. This year, they'll focus on nursing home sustainability and county issues.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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