South Dakota mulls ending contested judicial elections

The legislative proposal is still in its early stages, and would need voter approval in 2024. It would end contested elections of judges and create a mechanism for formally allowing all judges to be appointed by the Governor. All judges would then face periodic retention elections, during which they would run unopposed and voters would choose to retain them for another term.

The proposal is far less radical as it seems. As this article points out, almost all state judges are already appointed to fill vacancies that occur between election cycles. Indeed, almost no judges actually ascend to the bench in the first instance from a direct election. Removing the requirement of contested elections is therefore as much a housekeeping measure as anything else.

It’s also an excellent idea. Contested judicial elections are in fact almost never contested, and when they are they are subject to deep politicization. Retention elections would continue to provide accountability to the voters, especially if it is paired with a robust judicial performance evaluation program.

Let’s see how this plays out. It is a hard thing for voters to give up their franchise, even in elections where there is rarely a decision to be made. But it is a development that bears watching.

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