S.D. primary election dispute still has lawmakers looking for better enforcement

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Several South Dakota lawmakers talked again Thursday with state election officials about a problem discovered during a June recount in a state Senate primary.

The discussion came during an appearance by Secretary of State Steve Barnett and his elections director, Kea Warne, before the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

House Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, said state law was broken when a Clay County precinct worker failed to stamp some ballots as official and they were still counted.

The recount board found that Senator Art Rusch, a Vermillion Republican, narrowly turned back a challenge from Representative Nancy Rasmussen, a Hurley Republican. The recount showed Rusch received 1,002 votes and Rasmussen 998.

Rusch, who serves on the committee, said Thursday the recount board was “well aware” that the poll worker “had screwed up” and the board chose to follow a South Dakota Supreme Court decision that a voter’s intent should be honored, rather than the law that says unstamped ballots don’t count.

“We’re not going to get criminal penalties for people screwing up,” Rusch, a retired circuit judge, said. “I’m not familiar with any place where they intentionally screwed up.”

Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican who chairs the committee, said she hoped county auditors were tracking the discussion. County auditors run state and local elections in their respective counties.

Representative Isaac Latterell, a Tea Republican who lost his primary run, said the heightened intensity of national politics this year puts more pressure on precinct workers, county auditors and state’s attorneys. He said there should be a document that clarifies each one’s responsibility.

Warne said there isn’t a document of that type.

Earlier in the meeting, Haugaard said he was concerned the November election results wouldn’t be accurate if there aren’t people with an eye for detail at each polling place. “There was a state law. It just wasn’t followed,” Haugaard said.

Peterson asked Warne whether Clay County officials had “authority to break the law.” Warne said her office would “never” recommend anyone shouldn’t follow state law.

Warne said she didn’t know the county auditor’s involvement and the recount board by law is supposed to be independent of the county auditor.

Peterson asked how it could be ensured that the ballot-stamping law is followed. Warne replied, “That’s probably going to be up to the state’s attorneys in each county to enforce that.”

Warne said voters or poll watchers who see something they think was mishandled need to contact the state’s attorney. There’s no requirement state’s attorneys be at polling places, Warne added.

A county typically has more than one polling place but only one state’s attorney.

Peterson suggested perhaps stationing state-assigned monitors in counties that have had problems. Warne said they need to trust county auditors and state’s attorneys properly train precinct workers.

“Our staff in the division of elections is only five people,” Warne said. “It’s a very busy day for us.” She said monitoring would leave her office short-staffed.

Warne asked that people call her office from the polling place if there is a problem because it’s difficult afterward to fix things.

Peterson said there needs to be a plan for enforcement. Warne said her office provides “a ton” of information to auditors and her office has it posted online too.

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