Controversial changes to nominating procedures rejected by South Dakota House

A heavily amended version of Senate Bill 40, taking out most of the controversial changes while leaving in a change to the nomination of lieutenant governor, passed the House 48-21 on Thursday.

Rep. Roger Chase, of Huron, speaks in favor of a compromise amendment on Senate Bill 40 during House debate on March 2, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A proposal to revert most statewide officer contests to primary elections was deserted by the South Dakota House of Representatives on March 2, with representatives voting overwhelmingly in favor of amending Senate Bill 40, taking out controversial changes that had passed through the Senate last week.

The move indicates that a large majority of lawmakers took seriously concerns from some within the Republican Party that taking away the selection of statewide officers would sabotage the convention and take away privileges from delegates who, in theory, contribute to the party’s local organization.

“Our last state convention had record attendance. It was a success and a wake-up call on how important your involvement is,” Rep. Jessica Bahmuller, of Alexandria, said in moving the amendment. “This amendment restores the voice of our precinct committeemen and women and saves the system that has worked for years.”

Currently, every statewide office outside of the governor — lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, public utilities commissioner, commissioner of school and public lands, treasurer and auditor — is chosen by delegates at each party’s respective convention.

Under the original tenets of Senate Bill 40, all of these positions other than lieutenant governor would have been thrown to traditional primaries.


The candidate for the lieutenant governor, on the other hand, would be chosen by the gubernatorial candidate. The version passed 48-21 by the House of Representatives keeps this specific change intact, which even opponents of the original bill seemed to generally agree with, while removing the rest of the bill.

The modification now requires consent from the Senate.

Proponents of the change in its Senate-approved form argued that a primary available to every voter would be more reflective of the true grassroots opinion than a few hundred delegates.

“When we were going to the convention [last year], it dawned on me that we were doing this wrong. Voters had already been to the polls. They should have had the opportunity to vote for their state treasurer, their state auditor, certainly their attorney general.“ Rep. Roger Chase, of Huron, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House, said during the proposal’s hearing in House State Affairs on Wednesday, March 1. “We deprived them of that right.”

One day later, during debate on the House floor, Chase spoke in favor of the amendment and its potential to begin healing the Republican Party.

“It’s time to save the caucus, it’s time to save the Republican Party and move forward together with a unified version,” he said.

Opponents staked their antagonism to the original bill primarily on its effect on precinct committeemen and precinct committeewomen in the Republican Party. These locally elected officials make up the majority of delegates to the convention and help bolster the county and state parties by canvassing neighborhoods and working with legislative candidates.

Chase and others have pointed out that the majority of these positions are unfilled and, even in ones that are filled, do little to help legislative and statewide candidates.


Furthermore, several proponents throughout the months-long debate around the proposal noted examples of precinct committee people that lean more conservative in their convention choices than the voters they represent.

Outside of arguments that the change would further disincentivize participation in the grassroots elected positions, criticisms of the proposal noted that several of these lower-level positions were not suited for the time and dollar-intensive primary races.

Rich Sattgast, the state auditor in South Dakota, speaks against a change to primary nomination processes during a House State Affairs hearing on March 1, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

One opponent of the change during its hearing in the House State Affairs committee on March 1, where the bill advanced 8-5 among several of the chamber’s top lawmakers, was Rich Sattgast, the current state auditor.

One of several lower-level positions set to go from a convention selection to a statewide primary, Sattgast argued that these less-visible positions would have a difficult time raising enough money to compete in a primary were they to go up against a better-funded opponent, potentially damaging to the state if that opponent had little experience for the role.

“What we're talking about doing here is inviting money into the political process. We've heard the comments that if it's good enough for a county auditor race, why isn't it good enough for a state auditor race? Well, they're two different races,” he argued in his testimony. “Typically people know the people who are running for those positions. It's a local race, it's a yard sign, coffee shops and door-to-door. It's not possible for statewide candidates to do that with the amount of money that we're able to raise.”

All told, the version of Senate Bill 40 that passed the House of Representatives is a “compromise” generated by the state Republican Party, advancing minor changes to avert the possibility of a governor and lieutenant governor disagreeing on basic policy and potentially undermining the efficiency of the executive branch.

Otherwise, it leaves the convention system in place, though the process leading up to this outcome certainly generated conversation about the shortcomings of the precinct delegate system and ways it can improve.

“The state party is ready to work together and continue with our goals united,” Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, of St. Onge, the vice chair of the state Republican Party, said during floor debate.


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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