PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s election dates for municipalities and school boards could be changing.

The state House of Representatives wants those contests held on the same days in June or November when statewide primary or general elections are held, starting in 2025. The 47-19 vote Thursday sends the issue to the Senate.

South Dakota laws currently require that municipal and school board elections must be held only in April, May or June. Those laws also don’t allow municipal or school board elections on the same day as the November general elections.

Historically in South Dakota, voter turnout has varied substantially when local elections weren’t held on the same day as better-publicized statewide June primary elections.

The Sioux Falls school board, for example, had 11.33% voter turnout when it held joint elections with the city of Sioux Falls on April 12, 2016. Voter turnout jumped to 30.5% in the Sioux Falls school board contests for the April 10, 2018, joint elections. Sioux Falls had 25.92% turnout for its June 3, 2020, city council election. For the Sioux Falls school board election that same day, turnout was 26.39%. But for the May 18, 2021, Sioux Falls school board elections, turnout plummeted to 5.13%.

For the same period, November general-election turnouts statewide were 69.62% in 2016, 64.89% in 2018 and 73.88% in 2020, according to the South Dakota Secretary of State office. June primary-election turnouts statewide were 21.94% in 2016, 26.57% in 2018 and 28.22% in 2020.

Prime sponsor of HB 1300 is Representative Will Mortenson, R-Pierre. He said Thursday he’s “passionate” about the proposed changes and noted that Hughes County holds its Pierre city and school board elections on the same dates as the June primary elections. Lead sponsor in the Senate is Jim Bolin, R-Canton.

Opponents at the bill’s hearing Wednesday included South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett, whose office oversees elections, and leaders for South Dakota’s Municipal League, Associated School Boards and Association of County Officials. The House State Affairs Committee nonetheless endorsed it 10-1.

“We can do better, but we’ve got to make a change,” Mortenson said during Thursday’s House debate. “Our state law creates complexity and puts the burden entirely on the voter.”

Representative Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, cast the only nay in committee. Jensen acknowledged that a school-board election by itself might have lower turnout, but the voters who participate were coming out to back a specific person.

The effect of Mortenson’s proposal, Jensen said, would be to increase voters who might not be familiar with the candidates. “We’re randomly electing somebody potentially,” he said. Jensen also noted that he might have to go to three different places to vote on election day. “I think when we have them separate, people know why they’re going to vote,” he said. 

Representative Drew Dennert, R-Aberdeen, supported the proposed changes “I think this is absolutely going the right direction,” he said. One of the potential benefits is that candidates might have to spread their messages more broadly, according to Dennert.  

The different dates would also apply in odd-numbered years when state and county governments don’t hold regular June and November elections.

Representative Ryan Cwach, D-Yankton, opposed the changes for a variety of reasons. He noted that Democrat lawmakers last year opposed putting a statewide ballot measure on the June primary ballot because primary turnout in South Dakota historically has been lower than for November general elections.

“So we’re all hypocrites, we’re all picking and choosing,” Cwach said.