Marijuana proposals offer South Dakota intrigue

By STEPHEN GROVES Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Like the rest of the nation, voters in South Dakota are deciding whom to back for president. And they’ve got a U.S. Senate race to decide. But with Republicans long dominating the state’s elections, the most interesting questions to be resolved Tuesday may be separate proposals to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana. Election officials have received a historical number of absentee ballots, raising the possibility that tallying the results could take longer than usual.

Some of the key races and ballot items that shaped this year’s campaign:


President Donald Trump is expected to easily carry deep-red South Dakota, which has sent its three electoral college votes to the Republican presidential candidate every year since 1968. Trump won South Dakota handily in 2016, taking over 61% of the vote.

With the state seen as safe for the GOP, neither Trump nor Joe Biden invested much time or energy in South Dakota — although Trump did enjoy a July 3 trip to Mount Rushmore for a massive fireworks display.


Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds is trying to cruise to a second term over Democrat Dan Ahlers. Rounds, a former governor, held a sizeable cash advantage over Ahlers, a former state legislator and businessman. During the pandemic, Rounds scaled back his campaign activity, citing health concerns for his wife, Jean, who underwent treatment for cancer earlier this year.


U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson appeared to have an open path to reelection to South Dakota’s lone House seat after Democrats failed to field a candidate. Johnson did have one challenger — Libertarian Randy “Uriah” Luallin. Luallin toured the state but struggled to raise enough money to launch a significant campaign.


Voters were asked whether to change the state constitution to legalize recreational marijuana — a big jump in a state where lawmakers recently battled for nearly a year over an industrial hemp program. But advocates for the measure have cobbled together both Republican and Democratic supporters, making an argument that it would cut arrests for marijuana possession. They also raised nearly five times as much money as opponents.

However, they faced some influential opponents, including the state’s largest doctors association, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Gov. Kristi Noem, who argued it would lead to more drug use.


This citizen-initiated proposal would set up a medical marijuana program that would allow people with debilitating medical conditions to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana. When medical marijuana was last on the ballot in 2010, 63% of voters decided against it. But advocates haven’t faced the same opposition this year as the recreational marijuana proposal, a potential indicator of the changing national landscape. Neighboring North Dakota and Minnesota already legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states nationwide have made the far more aggressive move to OK recreational marijuana.


Voters will decide whether to allow sports betting in South Dakota’s gambling town of Deadwood. The Legislature passed a resolution to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. Lawmakers argued it bolsters tax revenues and keeps Deadwood competitive with neighboring states like Iowa that have rolled out sports betting after the Supreme Court paved the way for legal wagering two years ago.

Tribal casinos also would be allowed to offer sports betting if the measure passes.

In 2014, 57% of voters passed an amendment that made it possible for keno, craps, and roulette to be played in Deadwood.


South Dakota Democrats are trying to recover from a decade of seeing their numbers dwindle to just 16 seats in the Capitol. A combination of financial setbacks and leadership changes in the party may leave Democrats feeling lucky just to hang on to those.

In the days before the election, Democrats went hard at Noem, a Trump ally, for her hands-off approach while the coronavirus grew at one of the worst rates in the nation. While she does not face reelection this year, Democrats are hoping to tap into frustration with how Republicans like Noem and Trump have handled the pandemic.

But Republicans have generally been better funded and more organized this campaign cycle, leading the GOP to believe it can strengthen its stranglehold on the Legislature. Several races in the state’s southeastern cities, which in recent years have seen a shift in demographics and political preferences, could be tight as ballots are tallied.