The Democrats’ long slide in voter registration in South Dakota continued in the past month, as they fell to 170,057 as of March 1. That’s down more than 600 from the Nov. 8 election total. Republicans gained a little, reaching 253,854, up more than 1,700 since November. And independents remained the top choice in terms of additional registrations, climbing to a record 121,711, an increase of 3,000 since the election.
Despite what has become a years-long decline in voter registration, and despite being down to 10 members of the 70-seat House and six members of the 35-seat Senate in the South Dakota Legislature, there are instances of relevancy for Democrats in our Republican-dominated state government. The latest came Monday afternoon.
Mysteriously, two Senate confirmation votes were deferred on the governor’s latest appointees to the state Board of Regents. There wasn’t any explanation at the time, and the matter became odder when the Senate proceeded to confirmation votes on three appointees to the state Board of Education. The answer came a few minutes after 4 p.m. CT when the South Dakota Democratic Party issued a news release. It said state law had been violated regarding the regents.
The statute, 13-49-2, states: “No two regents may be residents in the same county and not more than six may be members of the same political party.” The Democrats said that as of 2 p.m. Monday, the minute when the Senate convened for its afternoon work, eight of the nine regents were Republicans.
Somehow none of us in the news media had caught the pattern that had been taking shape for some years. The two most recent appointees were Republicans. Pam Roberts of Pierre had recently been the South Dakota Republican Party chairman. Konrad Adam of Pierre, the student regent, is a son of Karl Adam, a past party chairman.
What happens next wasn’t immediately clear. The regents are a constitutional office in South Dakota, so this matter rose to a higher level than many other state boards and commissions. Perhaps some current regents got busy changing their voter registrations from Republicans to independents The one regent who wasn’t a registered Republican was retired circuit judge John Bastian of Belle Fourche. He was listed as an independent. That means a nine-member constitutional board didn’t have one Democrat and hasn’t had a Democrat for some time.
The system worked in this instance. The minority party pointed out an abuse favoring the majority party. The Senate used its confirmation authority to block two illegal appointments by the governor. It’s a good example of why two relevant political parties are important and why process matters.
UPDATE: The plot thickened a bit Tuesday. Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s chief of staff, produced two relevant sets of documents.
Turns out that regent Kathryn Johnson of Hill City, who was a Democrat when then-Gov. Mike Rounds first appointed her a decade ago, changed her registration to Republican for the 2016 primary elections. Venhuizen said she switched back Monday afternoon after the discovery there were too many Republicans. Her final term expires this year and her successor, presumably a Democrat or independent, will be appointed in the months ahead.
And then there’s the matter of whether the requirements apply to the student regent. Venhuizen provided a 1993 opinion from then-Attorney General Mark Barnett, now a circuit judge, that dealt with the residency of the student regent. Barnett concluded the residency requirement didn’t apply to the student regent. The Legislature changed the statute somewhat in 2007, according to Venhuizen, but lawmakers didn’t clarify whether the requirement applied. The regents’ current legal counsel Guilherme Costa gave Venhuizen his written opinion Tuesday that the attorney general wouldn’t find the same-party requirement applies to the student regent, either.
So all now appears to be good. Both Pam Roberts of Pierre and Conrad Adam of Pierre are back on the Senate calendar Tuesday for confirmation votes.
REBUTTAL: Over at his Dakota Free Press blog Cory Heidelberger takes a swipe at me, saying I exaggerated by saying the Democrats are in a long slide. Well, they are. Compare the 190,905 registered Democrats for the 2006 general election, or the 204,413 registered Democrats for the 2008 general election, to the steadily declining counts since then. Here’s a link to the those figures. You’ll find the numbers for Republicans and independents there too.