PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The state’s director of elections explained Thursday the situations that affected two South Dakota legislative primaries last month.
Kea Warne told members of the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee that in one instance the results from a precinct weren’t included in the election-night tally June 2.
She said Douglas County Auditor Phyllis Barker discovered the error during preparation for a recount.
After the recount, Representative Marty Overweg of New Holland finished ahead of challenger Jessica Bahmuller of Alexandria, 1,772 to 1,751, to win one of the District 19 House Republican nominations. Bahmuller initially had placed ahead of Overweg.
Senator Susan Wismer, a Democrat from Britton, had asked about the misplaced ballots that “were magically found.”
Warne said Douglas County uses DS200 tabulators. “The auditor grabbed three of the four precincts,” Warne said. “She did not enter in that fourth precinct.”
When did people realize an error had occurred, Wismer asked next, and what could be done to prevent a repeat?
“Every election there’s going to be the human-error factor. I think she caught it when they were getting ready for the recount. They found that mistake because there was a recount,” Warne said.
Warne, who works for South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett, said the state office worked with the vendor, Election Systems and Software, to add a pop-up box. “We just put that in place after the election,” Warne said.
Warne agreed with Wismer that there wasn’t a way for the secretary of state office to otherwise spot it.
Another legislative recount came in Clay County. Senator Art Rusch of Vermillion won the Republican nomination for re-election to the District 17 seat, finishing ahead of Representative Nancy Rasmussen of Hurley 1,002 to 998.
Representative Steven Haugaard, a Republican from Sioux Falls, said Thursday that unstamped ballots were counted. South Dakota law prohibits that.
Haugaard asked whether county auditors should be told to do their jobs. Warne said the recount board, rather than Clay County Auditor Carri Crum, decided to count those ballots. Warne said there would be more training.
Haugaard said the decision “made all the difference in the election” and the recount board affirmed what Crum had done.
Warne said county auditors don’t check ballots for stamps on election night. “They just run ’em through,” Warne said. The recount board counted the unstamped ballots, she said.
Haugaard said the auditor was made aware of the situation on election day. Warne said the secretary of state staff could offer more training but can’t make auditors follow the laws.
Rusch, who is on the legislative committee, said the South Dakota Supreme Court had issued a decision saying people’s votes shouldn’t be discarded because of an election worker’s error. Rusch is a retired circuit judge.
Haugaard, also a lawyer, replied that the court’s decision wasn’t definitive on this situation and other case law was contrary. Haugaard said auditors making decisions on the fly can affect results.
Senator John Wiik, a Big Stone City Republican, asked how any of this was relevant to the use of the coronavirus relief fund, which was the item on the committee’s agenda.
Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, said that Barnett and his top elections staff had appeared at the hearing to discuss his office’s use of CRF money to make absentee ballots available for the primary and general elections.
Peterson, the committee’s co-chair, said there is the possibility that Barnett might need to use CRF money for more training before the November general election.
“I think it’s all relevant. Our auditors were asked to do yeoman’s work in a short period of time to process all these ballots,” Peterson said, noting there were five legislative recounts and absentee ballots played a role.
Barnett said registered voters requested 112,222 absentee ballots, compared to 23,146 in 2018 and 19,124 in 2016. He said the costs came to about $325,000 for mailing, printing and design. More than 98,000 voters already have requested absentee ballots for November, he said.
Jason Lutz, the deputy secretary of state, said 58 % of votes in South Dakota’s primaries came by absentee ballots. The turnout of 28% was the highest for a primary election since 2008 when there were two competitive presidential contests. “We would hope that would continue this fall,” Lutz said.