PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A group has filed freedom of information requests with the South Dakota secretary of state and various counties’ auditors in places where drop-off boxes were used to receive absentee ballots ahead of the June 7 primary elections.
All of those requests from South Dakota Canvassing Group have been denied, one of its leaders, Jessica Pollema of Tea, told the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee on Wednesday.
Pollema was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Lincoln County auditor. She said the group’s members believe drop boxes are a violation of state election law.
“We would just like to see them removed by order of the secretary of state prior to the November election so claims against surety bonds and lawsuits don’t have to occur,” Pollema said.
State law is silent about whether drop boxes are legal or illegal. County auditors are elected in South Dakota and are responsible under state law for conducting elections. None of the county auditors who used surveillance cameras to watch drop boxes kept the video, while auditors in some counties didn’t surveil them at all, according to Pollema.
“This is also a violation of federal law,” she said, noting that the video would fall under a nationwide requirement that papers and records be kept for 22 months after an election for federal office.
Based on answers to the group’s information requests regarding video, Pollema said, “We know all these have been deleted and have not been kept.”
She also called upon Secretary of State Steve Barnett to do a public service announcement telling voters to check their registration so they can change if necessary before they vote.
South Dakota law allows people age 18 and older to register to vote or change their registration when they receive or update a driver’s license. Kea Warne, director for the elections division in the secretary of state office, told lawmakers Wednesday that new voters are automatically placed in the independent/no-party category if they don’t choose a party affiliation when they register. Warne said registered voters meanwhile automatically keep their previous affiliation when they renew their licenses if they don’t also mark a different affiliation.
“This is voter suppression,” Pollema alleged Wednesday when she spoke after Warne. Pollema listed other states where she said this had happened. “In my opinion, this is proof our voter rolls are hacked,” Pollema said. “We need to have this examined.”
Pollema said she heard reports “all day long” that Republicans were turned away from voting on primary day. Republicans confine their primaries in South Dakota to only Republicans, while Democrats allow independents/NPA to participate in theirs. South Dakota doesn’t allow people to change their party registrations on election day. “People were turned away in tears. This happened all over the place,” Pollema said. “So this is a huge issue.
Pollema noted that South Dakota is one of four states that don’t require post-election audits of some type. She was one of the witnesses who testified during the 2022 legislative session in favor of HB 1329 that sought to require audits after presidential elections. The House approved it 36-31 but the Senate State Affairs Committee blocked it 8-0.
Three weeks after the primary election, Monae Johnson of Rapid City defeated Barnett for the Republican nomination for secretary of state. She ran on a platform of election integrity and told the South Dakota Republican convention delegates that post-election audits would be conducted.
Barnett went before the legislative committee Wednesday to brief the panel and answer questions about the primary and the coming November general election.
Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, said he served as a poll-worker in Minnehaha County. Nesiba said the location where he was stationed was a voting place for two legislative districts. He said that led to some early confusion.
The Legislature should be cautious about splitting election precincts across more than one legislative districts when lawmakers draw different boundaries after the next U.S. census in 2030, Nesiba said. He said the delay in completing redistricting last year also contributed to problems in some counties.
According to Barnett, 21 counties used drop-off boxes to receive absentee ballots during the June primary elections, while Lincoln and Minnehaha counties generally stopped using them. He acknowledged that Lincoln County stationed a deputy sheriff and an election official in the parking lot at the University of Sioux Falls stadium for a few hours on certain days so that voters in southern Sioux Falls didn’t have to drive to Canton to deliver their absentee ballots.
Representative Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, said those could have been a violation of state law and raised questions about chain of custody issues and verification. Barnett said that then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg declared drop boxes were permitted in 2020. Peterson asked whether county auditors must follow South Dakota law. Barnett agreed. He said South Dakota doesn’t have a uniform way of handling drop boxes.
Barnett also was asked about his office’s process for addressing allegations that election laws haven’t been followed. He said they contact the attorney general’s office, which has the authority to contact local law enforcement.
Peterson suggested making election training mandatory. “I think maybe you have more authority than is being exercised,” she told Barnett. She added, “It’s not making its way all the way down to the polling places, at least not all of them.”
Barnett said the errors occur when the poll worker distributes the wrong ballot and said the voter also has some responsibility to be sure that the correct ballot was received.
“But if they (auditors and election workers) don’t come, it doesn’t matter,” Peterson replied.
Barnett said his office could “ramp up our efforts” to get county auditors for training. Senator Kyle Schoenfish, a Scotland Republican, suggested virtual training could be tried. “I’m not aware of anyone who didn’t go to training,” Barnett replied.
Is there a shortage of poll workers? Schoenfish asked. In June 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic there was, Barnett said, but not this time.
Nesiba said his pay as a poll worker was about $11 an hour and he wondered how much of the responsibility is the wage. “I think we are under-appreciating that,” Nesiba said. “We’re asking a lot of poll workers.”
Nesiba said legislators would have a deeper appreciation of the work involved if they did duty as poll workers. Peterson responded that people aren’t criticizing poll workers, they’re saying the voter needs to get the information. “So there isn’t human error to the extent that it has been,” Peterson said.
Peterson suggested county commissioners need to advocate for higher wages for poll workers. “I think there are a number of things we can look at to make the whole system better,” she said.
Nesiba said poll workers who do 12-hour shifts are going to make errors and voters need to take more responsibility to know they are correctly registered. The Legislature put counties in difficult positions by the late delivery of the new map for legislators’ election districts, Nesiba said.
“Eight years from now we should make sure that we don’t do that again,” Nesiba said. Peterson agreed that legislators who voted for having polling places cover more than one legislative district should take responsibility.