PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — No other county in South Dakota comes close in number of registered voters to Minnehaha County. As of Friday morning, Minnehaha’s registration totals showed 49,847 Republicans; 36,543 Democrats; 34,344 independents and no-party; 518 Libertarians; and 295 others. They comprised big chunks of the statewide registration totals of 271,630 Republicans; 156,415 Democrats; 134,232 indies and no-party; 2,137 Libertarians; and 1,332 others.
Consequently Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz faces the biggest challenge among the 66 counties in accounting for absentee ballots that voters have been casting since the statewide window opened September 18 for the November 3 general election. Twice — after the 2014 general election, and again this summer after the June 2, 2020, primary election — special review panels made recommendations on how Minnehaha County might improve its processes.
Litz said he already had put some into practice and plans to use some of the others. Even so, South Dakota should expect another “two-day deal” for Minnehaha County to finish counting votes after the polls close at 7 p.m. on election night, according to Litz.
Litz said Minnehaha County used three DS850 scanners for counting the June ballots. He said he tried to have the county government buy a fourth, so his staff could devote two to the county’s counts and two to counting the city of Sioux Falls ballots, but the manufacturer didn’t have one available.
COVID-19 had led Sioux Falls to hold municipal elections the same day as the June 2 primaries. COVID-19 affected the local primaries by leading to closures beforehand of many Sioux Falls polling locations and shifting many in-person voters to new places, Litz said.
COVID-19 also drove up absentee voting ahead of the primary at much heavier pace overall than what South Dakota had seen in previous elections. South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett had mailed absentee-ballot applications to all registered voters statewide before the primary, paying for the work from federal funds.
Testifying before a legislative panel earlier this summer, Barnett said registered voters requested 112,222 absentee ballots for the primaries, compared to 23,146 in 2018 and 19,124 in 2016. Of the 154,328 ballots cast in the primaries, 58% came via absentee. The 28% turnout was the highest for a primary election since 2008.
Minnehaha County received 14,921 absentee ballots for the June primaries. That was nearly seven times more than the 2016 primaries, with 44% of the 2020 ballots arriving in the final six business days before the election.
For the 2016 general elections — including the presidential contest — Minnehaha County received 18,173 absentee ballots; Litz said he expects about 35,000 absentee ballots this November.
Litz said some of his staff are daily sorting absentee ballots that arrive in the mail and in-person voters visit the courthouse. He has hired 20 more people who will work on November 3 through when the counting is complete. The review panel supported that decision.
State law allows counties to start counting absentee ballots on election day. According to state elections director Kea Warne, approximately half of the counties have done it that way, rather than waiting until after the polls close.
One of the 2020 task force’s recommendations calls for the Legislature to create an exception in state law to let counties to start counting absentee ballots before election day. Another recommendation was Minnehaha County should use county properties including the 13 Siouxland public libraries as drop-off spots, but Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken disagreed with Litz’s proposal.
Instead there are two drop-off boxes on the courthouse campus with monitoring cameras and lights. planned. He checked them twice a day last weekend.
“I was trying to look for a way that all these ballots wouldn’t pile up at the end,” Litz said about the broader plan. “Didn’t work out.”
Another recommendation was that Litz’s office receive adequate funding from the Minnehaha County Commission. “I think they’re going to give me all the money I need,” Litz said. He’ll have nearly 500 people working and another 300 or more who can be tapped.
Litz plans to adopt a recommendation that his office issue more public information to the public throughout the weeks leading up to election day. He said those efforts will be weekly and would start in the coming days.
He has a temporary crew of 56 people ready to work on the expected late surge of absentee ballots, but COVID-19 affects where they can be. “I’ve got the horsepower but I don’t have the space to do it in,” he said. His hope of using the Sioux Falls Coliseum as a processing center, starting the Friday before the general election, was sidetracked because another group already had the space that day.
A training video for election workers that the task force recommended is ready, he said. Signatures of voters on absentee ballot submissions will be matched to voter-registration records ahead of election day. As for the recommendation that he have a reserve squad identified and trained, Litz said there aren’t enough county courthouse employees to do that.
In past elections he’s sent teams to post offices throughout Sioux Falls to gather ballots in the evening rather than wait for the next-day mail, but he said that effort has become more difficult of late, because some postal supervisors sometimes haven’t understood those visits were planned. “Coordinating with the post office is very difficult, very hard to do,” he said.
He disagreed with the recommendation for surveying voters after the elections, calling it a “bad idea.” He said he’s tried to work with other counties’ auditors through their state association on recommending changes to the Legislature but it can be difficult to get done for a variety of reasons, including the short span between November elections and January starts of legislative sessions. Most election changes need to take effect in odd-numbered years, before the next election year starts.
As of 9:09 Friday morning, Minnehaha County had received 10,455 absentee ballots through the mail and walk-ins. By comparison, for the 2018 general elections, his office had 13,967 submitted through election day. Of those his office counted 13,952.
“Fifteen had issues of some type and were not counted,” Litz said Friday. “Most probably late turn-in time.”