WATERTOWN, S.D. (KELO) — A record 687 delegates participated in the nomination process Saturday at the South Dakota Republican convention. Not only did they exceed the previous high of 625 — their vehicles filled the parking lots of the Watertown Event Center with a row on the grass — but, more significantly, they affected all three contests.
Secretary of State Steve Barnett found out the hard way what their presence meant. He was denied a nomination, falling to Monae Johnson of Rapid City. She had held a variety of roles in the office under two of his predecessors, Chris Nelson and Shantel Krebs.
The secretary of state oversees elections in South Dakota. Johnson’s campaign theme of election integrity reflected the wave of delegates who supported her nomination. In her speech before Saturday’s vote, Johnson said she opposed online voting, and she opposed online voter-registration and online registration updates as well. She said the office needs to provide more training on elections and called for a new system for citizens and businesses to register complaints and concerns about elections.
She plans another step. “We also need post-election reviews,” Johnson said. “South Dakota is one of only four states without any post-election reviews. So we have no idea how accurate the machines are from the real ballots from the election, and we have a right to know — and I will make that happen.”
The Legislature considered an election-integrity bill during the 2022 session. Representative Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, sponsored HB 1329.
Howard’s original version said, “The State Board of Elections shall conduct a forensic audit to verify the results of every general election in which the offices of President and Vice President of the United States are on the ballot. The audit must be completed by June 1 of the year following the election. The board may contract with a third party with experience in forensic audits of elections.”
The House State Affairs Committee amended the bill to apply only to federal races and limited the audit to only when “the two candidates with the highest number of votes are separated by less than ten percent of the total votes cast.” Republican President Donald Trump beat Democrat challenger Joe Biden in South Dakota in the 2020 general election 261,043 to 150,471, so there wouldn’t have been an audit. Nonetheless, that amended version passed the House 36-31. The Senate State Affairs Committee however killed it 8-0.
One of the witnesses testifying for forensic audits at the House hearing was Tonchi Weaver of Rapid City. The registered lobbyist for South Dakota Citizens for Liberty was at the Republican convention Saturday, wearing the red tee-shirt that showed Johnson’s supporters.
Johnson made another promise Saturday. “Customer service will be one of my main priorities and my door will always be open,” she said. In that respect, the potential election of Johnson promises to provide the Citizens for Liberty group with greater access to a key office at the Capitol.
Barnett defeated Democrat Alexandra Frederick for the office in 2018 by a nearly 2-to-1 margin after previously serving eight years as state auditor. One of Barnett’s goals was to establish an online voter-registration system. He repeatedly ran into opposition from fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
Barnett’s office introduced electronic-update legislation in 2021. An amended version of SB 24 got out of the Senate 21-13 but was defeated in the House State Affairs Committee 7-6. A related bill, HB 1271, proposed spending $42,500 to purchase an online voter-registration system. House members voted against it 34-31.
Barnett also ran into trouble with some Republican lawmakers after he mailed applications for absentee ballots to all registered South Dakota voters for the 2020 primary elections. regardless whether a voter had requested an absentee ballot. It was to encourage voter participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid questions, Barnett didn’t repeat it for the 2020 general election.
Representative Drew Dennert, R-Aberdeen, brought HB 1126 during the 2021 session to prohibit the secretary of state from mailing an application for an absentee ballot unless the voter had requested it. The House approved an amended version 52-16 but the Senate State Affairs Committee killed it 9-0, with Barnett among the witnesses who testified against it.
Dennert was the first person to nominate Johnson on Saturday. “During my six years in the Legislature I’ve worked on numerous election bills, and I can tell you from experience our process is not perfect,” Dennert told delegates. “Monae Johnson is the only candidate running for this office who is willing to admit we have made some mistakes.”
Johnson went on to defeat Barnett 61 percent to 39 percent. The presence of so many delegates also affected the contests for the attorney general and lieutenant governor.
The AG nomination came out closer Saturday than Marty Jackley and his backers had expected on Friday. The former attorney general defeated David Natvig 52.68 percent to 47.32 percent. “Wow, thank you,” Jackley joked as he began his acceptance speech. “I’ll keep it short so you don’t change your mind.”
Jackley acknowledged that convention fights pitted friends against each other. “But at the end of the day we’re Republicans. We unite because of what matters — life matters, Second Amendment matters, pushing back on Washington matters.”
Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden got past a challenge from Representative Steve Haugaard 56 percent to 44 percent. Governor Kristi Noem had been the first to nominate Rhoden. Haugaard had challenged her in the June 7 primary election and she had won by a much wider margin, 76 percent to 24 percent.
Noem absolutely didn’t want to have to run with Haugaard as her No. 2, especially after he had made insensitive remarks during the 2022 legislative session that drew criticism from her and numerous female legislators, as well as from the South Dakota Republican Party.
“Hey, I just want to say thank you,” Rhoden told delegates after defeating Haugaard. “Thank you for your trust. It is an honor to represent the people of South Dakota. It is an honor to work alongside Governor Noem. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to go to the general election with Kristi to fight the true enemies of our state and our nation. I look forward to working with all of you.”