SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — President Donald Trump’s false claims about the outcome of the 2020 election are still looming large in South Dakota’s State Capitol.
Trump won the Rushmore State with 62% of the vote but lost the Electoral College 306-232 to President Joe Biden. With dozens of election-related bills being discussed during the 98th Legislative session, outgoing Lyman County Auditor Deb Halverson has spent five different days in Pierre sharing perspectives from South Dakota’s locally run election process.
“The tone that was set after the 2020 election really put a damper on all election officials across the country,” Halverson told KELOLAND News. “I would say that was done unfairly. It has made election integrity go out the window, without enough proof or basis to make it worth it.”
Halverson said South Dakota’s local election officials have had to deal with added pressure despite no evidence of rigged elections or talk of stealing the election in South Dakota.
“For us to still be wrapped into that group has been an uphill battle,” Halverson said. “I hope that people understand that there was no basis for those claims. We here in South Dakota value election integrity and I want the system to maintain its current integrity and move forward. We hope that the people will see that.”
Extra input from county auditors, who oversee voter registration, absentee voting, Election Day voting and vote counting, hasn’t gone unnoticed by many lawmakers.
“The best thing that has happened this year is we have the auditors coming,” Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister said during a news conference Thursday. “In the past years, we really haven’t had anything out of the auditors except for some emails reacting after a bill has come through. They’re the ones that really have to deal with these laws.”
Halverson, who will be replaced by Kalli Houchin in a few weeks, said she believes elections were only 20% of her job duties as auditor. She has already spent five days in Pierre testifying on a variety of election-related bills. She also said county auditors have been vocal in emailing and contacting lawmakers about different bills.
“It’s been a daily task trying to keep up with the changing amendments, just trying to stay on top of it to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” Halverson said. “We as auditors will be the first to cry foul if we think there’s something wrong (with an election) and I hope that people understand that.”
Halverson said there’s been a few lawmakers that have reached out to the auditor’s group and asked for feedback on election bills. She said it’s been a balancing act to find the right improvement and not hurt the good election system currently in place.
“There’s a few (lawmakers) that are not reaching out and those tend to be the ones that we oppose a little bit more,” Halverson said. “I’m not sure we found all the solutions yet, but I think that some of the bills are moving in the right direction.”
Absentee voting changes being discussed
One bill that had Halverson’s attention on Thursday was House Bill 1217 which would make changes to the absentee voting process. It would cut the absentee voting timeline from 46 days to 30 days. It passed the House Local Government committee 7-5 and moved onto the full House floor.
Republican Rep. Scott Odenbach told lawmakers on the committee he brought the bill because of multiple emails he received on the topic of cleaning up South Dakota’s elections.
“Absentee voting has become too easy,” Odenbach said. “We now have an election month or election quarter.”
Odenbach said absentee voting has become too big of a burden for county auditors to deal with. He said it provides opportunities for fraud.
“We live in a republic and if we don’t do anything I see continuing to move to a pure democracy where voting is two months, six months, who knows, all year long where anyone can vote anywhere at any time,” Odenbach said in the committee meeting. “How do we balance voter access with the need to ensure security and the integrity of our elections.”
Federal law allows people serving in the military 46 days ahead of Election Day to vote.
“Nothing in the law says ours has to go on that long. I think a reasonable compromise is to lower it to 30 days,” Odenbach said.
Three county auditors voiced opposition to the bill and Halverson said committee members knew how auditors felt about the bill.
“Not that that affects us as county auditors as much, but I think it hurts the citizens of South Dakota,” Halverson said. “No excuse absentee voting has been a help to registered voters across the state and I would hate to see that go away.”
Susan Kiepke, Davison County auditor, spoke against HB 1217 and said auditors around the state run elections with integrity.
“We are talking about our reputations and we do not want our reputations tarnished,” Kiepke said.
Kathy Glines, Harding County auditor, testified against the bill and said the restrictions to absentee voting make people lie.
“If they have to have an excuse, they’ll find an excuse,” Glines said.
She said many of Harding County’s absentee voters are teachers who have to travel to rural schools on Election Day.
“We don’t see complaints on the 46 days,” Glines said.
Cindy Mohler, Pennington County auditor, also opposed the bill.
Erik Nelson, representing AARP South Dakota, said the bill would add unnecessary barriers to vote. He said voter turnout can increase with early voting.
“HB 1217 will reduce voter participation in our state,” Nelson said. “There is no evidence that the 46-day window has led to any problems with absentee voting in our state.”
Republican Rep. Sue Peterson, who moved the motion to pass the bill, said some lawmakers have barely started campaigning 46 days ahead of Election Day and don’t get information out to voters.