SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — History has come full circle at the Old Courthouse Museum in downtown Sioux Falls. The courthouse was the election headquarters for Minnehaha County from the 1890s until the early 1960s. Now, it’s rebooting its mission as the site where the auditor’s office will process votes on Tuesday and into Wednesday, if necessary. It turns out, getting final results over multiple days isn’t a new development.
The Old Courthouse Museum, dedicated to preserving South Dakota’s past, will play a key role in its future this week.
“The building continues to be a part of our community’s history and I think the election is just one more factor in that,” Old Courthouse Museum Director Bill Hoskins said.
On Tuesday, election workers will open absentee ballots here, much like they did for the June primary. Once the ballots are processed, they go next-door to the Election Center to be counted. The empty spaces inside the museum will provide workers will plenty of room to carry out their duties.
During the June primary, humidity slowed some of the tabulating machines counting the ballots. But Hoskins says this time around, humidity will not be a problem inside the building.
“November isn’t a problem here, we still have the old steam radiators and that does a great job heating the building and there shouldn’t be any problem there,” Hoskins said.
The 130-year-old building served as a centerpiece of frontier democracy and was the longtime home of the Minnehaha County auditor’s office. People voted here going back to elections in the 1890s. And while Tuesday’s vote tally is expected to take two-days, during those early years , same-day results were a rarity.
“Obviously, when they’re counting it, they don’t have the machines to run it through in order to get those tabulations quite so quickly, but they would do their best to get it counted at that time. But elections could take longer and returns could be disputed or returns could take longer to get back than the night of the election,” Museum Education Assistant Paavo Rasmussen said.
The museum has held onto a voting machine that was once considered high-tech for its day.
“And you don’t have to vote for everything and then to actually tabulate it, you’re going to take the red lever and pull it back,” Hoskins said.
Voters from earlier generations stepped inside these mechanical voting booths. Casting your ballot was like flipping on a light switch. Hoskins says voting mechanically like this had its advantages over the paper ballots we use today.
“You don’t need to worry about if you have a pen or a number-two lead pencil or if you color inside the lines or outside the lines, it was just flick the switch and pull the lever, to cast your ballot,” Hoskins said.
But voting trends have changed through the decades. Now, in this time of pandemic, more people are casting their ballots absentee. On Tuesday, the museum’s exhibits located on the second and third floors will be closed to the public while election workers process thousands of those ballots. Their work has echoes from the past inside this building where election history is repeating itself.
Those museum exhibits would likely remain closed on Wednesday, if, as expected, the vote count goes into a second day.
Hoskins isn’t directly involved in any of the election duties. He says he’s more in a support role: making sure workers have enough tables and chairs and other furnishings to do their work.