PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota is one of three states where political parties still hold political conventions to choose many of their statewide candidates for elected offices.

But there’s now a fierce fight under way in the South Dakota Legislature over whether statewide primary elections should instead be the way that Republican and Democrat nominees are picked.

So far, the side favoring the change to primaries is winning. Its latest victory came Wednesday. The House State Affairs Committee voted 8-5 for legislation that would make the switch for six of the seven remaining statewide slots whose nominees aren’t already decided by primaries.

Those six offices include attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, school and public lands commissioner, and public utilities commissioner.

The legislation also would let the governor nominee choose her or his lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor slots no longer would be decided by convention delegates.

The House could consider the new approach as early as Thursday afternoon. SB-40 has already passed the Senate on an 18-16 vote.

Republican Sen. David Johnson is prime sponsor of the legislation. He told the House panel Wednesday that the Republican Party could have approximately 2,000 precinct delegates, but roughly 1,400 aren’t filled.

Johnson said people contact him wanting to have those half-dozen nominations decided by primaries rather than through the byzantine convention process. He said county courthouse officials face primaries. “Why not the state officers?” he asked. “What we’re not getting right now is grassroots representation.”

The lead sponsor of the bill in the House is Republican Rep. Roger Chase. He told the House panel that this was the most important of the 22 election-integrity bills considered this session.

“Remember our state motto,” Chase said, “Under God, the people rule.”

Larry Eliason, a longtime Republican activist who’s now Potter County’s committeeman on the South Dakota Republican central committee, said 10 counties had no representation at the 2022 Republican statewide convention.

Arguing against them came a long line of Republican state- and county-level officers as well as several elected statewide office holders. First to speak was the South Dakota Republican Party’s state chairman, Sen. John Wiik. He was joined by Butte County Republican chairman Tom Brunner, a former legislator.

Brunner addressed the issue of counties that had no one at the convention. “That’s our goal, to get these counties to the table,” he said.

State auditor Rich Sattgast, who said he was an eight-time nominee, and first-year lands commissioner Brock Greenfield also spoke against it.

Sattgast said the convention process naturally counters influence by big donors. “Because of the convention process, it didn’t come down to money,” he said.

Greenfield asked what problem the bill would remedy. “That question is virtually impossible to answer,” he said. “As it stands, this is a mishmash of contradictory ideas.”

While they were testifying, the cell phones of the new Minnehaha County Republican chairman, R. Shawn Tornow, kept going off. At one point, several on the committee looked at each with concerned expressions.

Tornow said 70% of South Dakota voters didn’t participate in the 2022 primaries. He also said some delegates couldn’t afford the cost of attending the Republican convention in Watertown.

Chase, wearing a red, white and blue tie, said in rebuttal: “I’m a true Republican player, but I’m also an advocate for the voters of South Dakota.” The cost of running in a primary won’t be any higher than what candidates seeking a nomination spend meeting delegates across the state, he said.

Republican Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt asked Wiik, in his role as state chairman, what training precinct people receive. “As of now,” Wiik answered, “none.” He added, “That definitely is a goal,” and said he’s contacted the Republican National Committee for training materials.

Rehfeldt also asked about flood of several thousands of emails that legislators received at approximately the same time recently. Wiik said several county chairmen did that. “I did not direct, nor did I hinder that,” he said. “They didn’t ask my permission, nor did I tell them to.” 

Republican Rep. Becky Drury asked Johnson about the 1,400 unfilled precinct spots: Has that been fixed? “Well, no,” he said. In five years since he first brought the bill, and then set it aside, “Nothing has happened.”

Johnson said he is willing to work with Wiik but nothing has happened in five years. He said opponents of the proposed changes don’t want people to vote for statewide offices. 

Republican Rep. Rebecca Reimer asked Johnson why he waited five years to bring the legislation back. “I made an agreement. We had a very, very long with the current chair at the time,” Johnson said, referring to but not naming the previous party leader, Dan Lederman.

Reimer asked Wiik what he’ll do as state chairman to have every county represented. He said regional directors are tasked with that. He mentioned working with Hand County and indicated a few people in some of the other counties. “It’s something we’re working on,” Wiik said. “It takes time and we’re going to do it.” 

Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, the committee’s chairman, asked Wiik about the proposed change of letting the governor nominee choose a running mate. Wiik said he had that bill ready to go and it’s one of the changes he’d like to make.

Republican Rep. Jon Hansen tried to amend Johnson’s bill so that the only change would be the governor-lieutenant governor. Hansen said Johnson’s bill was “basically” a response to the 2022 Republican convention, where Monae Johnson upset incumbent Steve Barnett for the secretary of state nomination, and where David Natvig nearly defeated Marty Jackley for the AG nomination.

Chase spoke against the amendment. “This is kind of a last-ditch effort,” he said. Rehfeldt agreed: “I think it’s important to go forward with the bill in its current form.” The committee defeated it 8-5.

Rehfeldt called for the committee to endorse the bill. She said she has never been contacted by a precinct delegate, but had some work against her, and asked why Republicans are afraid of competition. She said legislative candidates run in Republican primaries and have to raise money for their campaigns.

She also pointed out a problem for Republicans in her city. “What’s happening in Sioux Falls is people are choosing to not be Republican any more,” Rehfeldt said. Five hundred people in her area have switched their voter registrations from Republican to independents. She addressed the Republican leaders in the room: “I think it’s important to hear that.”

Reimer and Hansen then called for the committee to defeat the bill. “It’s the dedicated core of our party that decides our candidates at the convention,” Hansen said, pointing out that in the long view of history the convention process wasn’t broken.

“Our party doesn’t want this bill,” Hansen said, referring to a discussion at the Republican state central committee meeting in January. He said the Legislature’s Republican leadership should seek unity rather than push for the change. “I think it’s a big mistake for our party leadership here in Pierre.”

Hansen also said the convention system “insulates” Republicans from the influence of big money. He said it wouldn’t take much for a few big companies to financially influence a primary race. “I think that’s really good,” he said.

Mortenson said he had served as a precinct committeeman, had been a paid employee of the South Dakota Republican Party and spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working to elect Republicans. He said the convention system is divisive.

“I think this unifies the party,” Mortenson said about Johnson’s legislation. It gives everyone a voice, he suggested. He talked about the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that changed how U.S. senators are selected; rather than legislatures making the choices, registered voters now do. He predicted legislators in 30 years would see this as another such right decision. “I think this is something whose time has come,” he said.

Hansen tried another amendment but that too failed.

Said Republican Rep. James Wangsness, “It’s a moment in time when we can give the people the right to vote.”