SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The position of Secretary of State has come under more scrutiny in states across the country as a result of the 2020 election. 

For the fourth consecutive term, South Dakota will be electing a new Secretary of State after Steve Barnett lost the Republican nomination at the state convention this summer. The two candidates vying for the position are Monae Johnson, a Republican from Rapid City, and Tom Cool, a Democrat from Sioux Falls.

Both were nominated at party conventions over the summer with Johnson ousting Barnett 61% to 39% from 687 Republican delegates and Cool earning the Democratic nomination. 

On Tuesday, both Johnson and Cool stopped by the KELOLAND Media Group studio to discuss the challenges South Dakota’s next Secretary of State will face. 

KELOLAND’s Dan Santella asked both candidates the same question: Do you acknowledge that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election? 

“I know my [opponent]’s calling me an election denier, but I’ve never denied any election,” Johnson told KELOLAND News. “And I know President Trump won South Dakota as a Republican state. Joe Biden won the swing states; he’s our current president. But I want to move on to the next elections, and I want to inspire people that their vote is going to be tabulated exactly like they vote, ’cause that’s going to just bring the trust to the citizens of South Dakota.”

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You can see the transcript of Santella’s follow-up questions with Johnson below.

Dan Santella: So there’s no ambiguity: you acknowledge that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election? 
Monae Johnson: I’m not an election denier, I just, I want to move on. There’s other groups that are looking into that, and, but see the Secretary of State’s office does elections, but they also do business filings, so there’s so many more things that we need to look at.
Dan Santella: Right, right. So, Biden won the 2020 presidential election, legitimately? 
Monae Johnson: I know you want me to answer that, but he’s our president right now.
Dan Santella: Okay. Do you acknowledge that he legitimately won in 2020? 
Monae Johnson: I don’t want to be an election denier, but I wasn’t behind the scenes, I wasn’t in the office at the time, so.
Dan Santella: Okay. I wanted to give you an opportunity to acknowledge that, if you’d like, that he did win. Do you acknowledge that? 
Monae Johnson: I’m not going to acknowledge that, so, thank you.

Cool said Biden “absolutely” won the 2020 election. 

“We’ve had 60-plus court cases have indicated that. There have been a couple of, I would say right-wing sponsored audits of races around the country and nothing has come of those,” Cool told KELOLAND News. “So I don’t really think there’s any basis at all to challenge that. And our own congressional delegation has acknowledged that Joe Biden won the last election … There are no cases of mass voter fraud anywhere that have been proven anywhere.”

On the left, Monae Johnson, the Republican Secretary of State candidate.
On the right, Tom Cool, the Democrat Secretary of State candidate.

Post-election audits

Johnson touted previous experience with the SOS office where she said she served as the receptionist, pistol permit administrator and handled miscellaneous filings under Chris Nelson. 

“I have two things that I would love to do. One of them is a post-election review … I would be working with the legislature to decide what percentage we would want to do,” Johnson said. “Let’s say 3%. You’d pick a random precinct, do 3% of the ballots and you would hand count them and use the tabulator. And if they match up, you’re good to go. If not, you’d do another percentage.” 

Johnson said a post-election audit “would bring the trust of the citizens to the machines.” South Dakota is one of five states that does not conduct any type of post-election audit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

Cool said he’d like to keep the SOS office stable and comply with federal court orders and the Federal Voting Rights Act. He questioned the purpose of holding a post-election audit. 

“If legislature wants it done, we’ll certainly do it,” Cool said. “But there’s a great deal of examination that goes on to the votes after the election. As you know, the votes that come out Election Day and are posted in the website are carefully reviewed after election to make sure that nothing’s awry.” 

Campaign finance reform, RV voters  

Johnson said the second change she’d like to implement if elected is a campaign finance expenditure to make the process more transparent. 

“You can’t look up a person and then see who they’ve donated to,” Johnson said. “And a lot of people want to follow the money trail. So that would be a new program … in the secretary of state’s office.

Johnson did add the Secretary of State’s office works with the rules set by the South Dakota Legislature, but she’d also advocate for changes to the state’s residency laws. 

“I really feel like we need to do a little improvement on how long it takes to be a resident here in South Dakota,” Johnson said. 

South Dakota residency laws allow a person to spend one night in the state to qualify for residency.

Cool said he’s concerned about the thousands of voters that vote after only staying in the state for one night a year. 

“We’ve got two precincts in District 15, where we’ve got over 1,000 voters in each precinct that are mailbox voters,” Cool said. “You can’t communicate with them because their mail is forwarded … People say they don’t vote. Yes, they do. I’ve looked those numbers up, too, and in most cases, they’re the majority of voters in those two precincts.” 

In South Dakota, once a voter is registered to vote at an address, they are not required to update their voter registration and it is possible for two different people to vote from the same listed address. 

Cool said he’s also concerned with voting on Native American reservations. 

“In Oglala (Lakota County), they tell me they can only vote ahead of time one or two days a week and within certain hours … I was in Mission and was told that they have to go to Winner to vote,” Cool said. “And I was in a meeting room in Mission, and I said, ‘Well why can’t there be a polling place here, and they said, ‘Well, the county commissioners say that has to be in a county building.’” 

Cool also agreed the Secretary of State’s office “doesn’t have any direct power” on many issues and the position needs to work well with lawmakers. 

“I would hope to work, a good relationship with both parties when I get in there,” Cool said. “And we’ll just have to keep working at it and plugging away, and I don’t intend to sit in the office. I hope to get out into the communities and talk to the leaders and see what concerns they may have.”

Online voter registration

In his four years, Barnett supported online voter registration. He had various versions of bills proposing changes in the 2020, 2021 and 2022 Legislative sessions. Senate Bill 69 in 2022 was not online voter registration but a way for registered voters to update voter information online. 

Cool said Johnson tied Barnett to online voting because he supported online voter registration. 

“He has assured me he never supported online voting,” Cool said. “I think online voter registration is certainly worth exploring as a possibility.”

Johnson said she likes to push voters to the Voter Information Portal on the Secretary of State’s website to find voter information but doesn’t support online voter registration.

“Anything online can be hacked,” Johnson said. “I want to bring the trust and safety issue back to the voters.”

She also said she’s against online voting. 

“One thing is they need the complete auditor training,” Johnson said. “I know with this administration, they have kind of pushed things to, if you have an issue, call your state’s attorney. So that leaves 66 different rulings for an election question. Where, I’m going to work with the attorney general’s office, and if there’s a problem and an issue, you reach out to them, they make a ruling, and then that’s statewide.”