As lawmakers raise questions, election officials in South Dakota defend state’s electoral system

Despite the concerns of some lawmakers and citizens, South Dakota election officials are “very confident” that the state electoral process is sound and that the 2022 general election results will be accurate and valid.

As is the case in almost all states, the South Dakota electoral process has come under increased scrutiny since the 2020 election in which former President Donald Trump lost but has continued to claim the election was rigged and electoral processes in America were compromised.

However, South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett and county auditors who run local elections say they have reviewed the concerns and concluded that the electoral process in place in South Dakota is secure and that voters can trust the results of the Nov. 8, 2022, election.

“I’m very confident in our system, which is a bottom-up approach led by auditors at the county level, and I also know that our election laws are strong,” Barnett said. “We have paper ballots, our tabulating machines are not connected to the internet, and a statewide canvass is completed after election day.”

Barnett said that while he is highly confident in the South Dakota electoral system, he is aware that scrutiny of elections is at an all-time high in America. Some of the uncertainty also arose after election officials across the nation found ways to hold valid elections in 2020, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and procedures such as absentee voting rose to unprecedented levels of use.

“I think some people across the country have lower voter confidence, so that carries over to other states,” Barnett said. “At more of the ground level in our elections, the auditors are seeing more questioning of the process and the system than they’ve probably ever seen before.”

Some of the recent concern has come from Republican lawmakers, including those in the new Freedom Caucus in the South Dakota Legislature, a group of 24 conservative Republican lawmakers.

In an Aug. 19, 2022, letter to Gov. Kristi Noem and Attorney General Mark Vargo, the lawmakers requested the two officials take steps to preserve 2020 election records by directing our “county Auditors to uphold the rights of our citizens to oversee and review the election process to further strengthen our elections, and to honor our commitment to our citizens for government transparency.”

In an Aug. 17 press release, the Freedom Caucus asked Noem and other lawmakers to “join them in taking immediate action in light of election integrity findings the caucus says they have recently become aware of.”

The release continues: “The caucus has not disclosed the specific details regarding their findings, but stated that some of the issues are time sensitive and affect the oversight of the election process.”

Election Day, absentee voting and the early voting process will look much the same in 2022 as it did in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. These voters took advantage of early voting in Hughes County in 2020. Photo: News Watch file

When asked what “election integrity findings” the lawmakers were referring to, Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg, said the caucus wants to help a citizens’ group obtain access to voting records to review them for inconsistencies, and has heard that some voters have been turned away from the polls in South Dakota. The caucus also wants to preserve records from the 2020 election in order to allow for further reviews.

“The point I’m coming from is that in the 2020 election … I had concerns with the way elections were being carried out,” Aylward said. “Some states were worse than others, but it just caused folks here in South Dakota to look into it a little more.”

Barnett said he and his staff have listened to and reviewed those concerns but have not found any concrete evidence of electoral problems or anything that shows a lack of integrity in South Dakota elections.

Barnett said he hasn’t seen any materials or information produced by the Freedom Caucus or a citizens’ group that he would consider as “integrity findings,” or actual evidence of electoral errors or wrongdoing.

Steve Barnett

“I’m not aware of anything concrete; it’s more like rhetoric,” Barnett said. “There’s nothing that I’ve seen concrete that they have reported to law enforcement or anything concrete that has been brought to our attention. And I don’t know who they’re attacking, really; it just gets to be like playing whack-a-mole.”

Some of the concerns raised by lawmakers dovetail with those of the citizens’ group, called the South Dakota Canvassing Group, which claims to have evidence of significant electoral problems in the state. The group’s website asks visitors to “Help us save South Dakota,” and provides basic 2022 election and ballot information, but also asks for donations and seeks volunteers to send in “election fraud tips.”

The website includes a video of a South Dakota Canvassing Group member speaking at a Moment of Truth Summit hosted by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, and the site references connections to Capt. Seth Keshel. Both Lindell and Keshel are known to be election deniers.

Aylward said the Freedom Caucus is not formally connected to the canvassing group but shares some of its concerns.

“They contacted us on this issue, and I agree with them on a lot of the concerns that they have,” Aylward said. “A lot of people see the stuff they [the canvassing group] are pursing as fringe, but I would say they raise a lot of good questions.”

Aylward said that human error, including voter error, plays a role in many election issues. Aylward said in an interview with News Watch that he has no concrete evidence of any electoral fraud in South Dakota at this time. But in a subsequent interview, he said his concerns increased after watching a video of a Sept. 20 press conference held by the canvassing group in Sioux Falls where members raised questions about electoral integrity in South Dakota.

One of the key talking points raised by the canvassing group and other national election critics is a desire to review Cast Vote Records, which are documents that some electoral machines produce to show how votes were cast and by whom. Citizens and groups across the country — prompted by national election deniers — have made formal records requests to see the CVRs, though many of the documents are not subject to open-records laws.

Aylward said he had heard that some South Dakota auditors have released CVRs and some have not; and he said he heard that some auditors are aware that CVRs exist and others are not. “That seems to result from a communication or training issue,” he said.

Barnett told News Watch in an interview that South Dakota voting machines do produce the CVRs but do not include images of actual ballots that could prove useful to someone trying to reconcile votes cast with vote tallies.

“If their goal is to lower voter confidence statewide, that’s a tool — to ask for something and then say, ‘We asked for it and didn’t get it,’ and that raises suspicion and lowers voter confidence,” Barnett said. “I don’t know what they hope to gain or what the motive is, so some of this is a head-scratcher.”

How to find your personal voter information in South Dakota

The South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office provides a Voter Information Portal that enables voters to enter their name and Zip Code or birthdate to determine their legislative, county commission and school board district; to learn their polling location on Election Day; and to view a sample of their ballot. Election questions can also be placed to county auditors, whose contact information can be found below.

CLICK HERE to access the Voter Information Portal.

CLICK HERE to access an online list of all county auditors with name, phone number and email address.

Key dates in 2022 election:

  • Absentee voting began: Sept. 23, 2022
  • Voter registration deadline: Oct. 24, 2022
  • Election Day: Nov. 8, 2022

Aylward also said he had heard from citizens he trusts that they were unable to vote as expected in the 2022 primary election in June, or were turned away at the polls.

Barnett said some voter confusion did result from the redistricting process undertaken recently in South Dakota in which a few legislative districts and polling sites were changed for some voters. Barnett urged voters to visit the secretary of state’s website  and use the Voter Information Portal to double-check their registration status, the district in which they can vote, and their polling locations.

Aylward said he does not believe any issues raised by the caucus or the citizens’ group will have an effect on the validity of the 2022 election in South Dakota.

Aaron Aylward

“I see it as, if we come out with these letters and we’re able to come together with the auditors to work together, I think that improves voter confidence,” Aylward said. “But if you end up butting heads or not coming to the same conclusion, I can definitely see that making confidence worse in the public’s view.”

Barnett said some of the new election scrutiny likely has its roots in Trump’s consistent allegations of electoral fraud.

“He’s got a following of folks upset that he didn’t win,” said Barnett. “He’s got a following, and some of his followers are going to believe what he says … but if people have questions, the best resource would be to turn to their county auditors.”

Barnett and Aylward, both Republicans, said they acknowledge that President Joe Biden was duly elected in 2020.

Lincoln County Auditor Sheri Lund said voter fraud is extremely rare in South Dakota, and added that those who do try to game the system are typically caught and prosecuted.

“I do not believe it is common, and the safeguards are in place to prevent that,” she said.

Many of the problems that occur during voting are due to unintentional errors on the part of the voter, she said. For instance, a 90-year-old woman who voted absentee in a recent election forgot she had done so, and then was taken by her son to vote on Election Day. The error was caught and the woman was not allowed to vote twice, Lund said.

“Every ballot that goes out is accounted for, and if there is a discrepancy, we would stop the process until the discrepancy is resolved,” she said. “We have checks and balances for every aspect of the election process.”

Lund said one criticism of the election process that arose in South Dakota recently involved claims that there were roughly 125 voters whose ages were listed as 120 years or older on the voter rolls. Upon investigation, she said, officials were able to determine that some voter ages were incorrectly entered into the system when a voter-registration computer program was changed and the ages wrongly defaulted to those unobtainable ages.

Lund said she and other auditors have received numerous Freedom of Information Act requests for voting records and information, and that they do their best to follow state laws in responding or providing material.

Lund said auditors recently have received numerous copies of the same FOIA request for election documents signed by different people.

Sheri Lund

“They’ve sent out a mass mailing to every auditor in the state with the same request,” she said. “They’re trying to find somebody that’s going to give them information that they [the requesters] don’t have.”

When the Freedom Caucus letter was sent to the governor and attorney general, Lund said she took notice, and with the help of Charles Mix County Auditor Jason Gant, arranged a public meeting where election concerns could be raised and addressed.

“When you get 24 legislators signing off on a letter that there are issues with elections in South Dakota, that’s a concern,” she said.

After hosting the meeting, and hearing the concerns, Lund said she remained steadfast in her support of the current electoral processes in her county and others across the state. Auditors in South Dakota stay in frequent contact about election processes, and if problems arise, they work together to fix them, Lund said.

So far, she said, she hasn’t seen evidence of fundamental issues with the state electoral process.

Lund said she respects the rights of citizens to question government and government officials.

“If you’re not comfortable with what’s going on, question it, and If they give you an answer and you’re not comfortable with that answer, then second-question it,” she said. “But if you have no basis in what you’re arguing about, does it really become a question at that point?”

Lund said she feels that some people, be it the canvassing group or those who show up to county meetings, can sometimes go overboard in trying to spread controversy over things they don’t understand or agree with.

“I absolutely appreciate anybody that ever questions government, but if you get an answer and you get an explanation and then you’re using fear-mongering to try to get people to believe your thought, I don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Aylward said he and others will continue to ask questions that he hopes will make the electoral process in South Dakota more transparent and more secure.

“As far as the election coming up, if we can make it as transparent as possible, and make the public feel better, it will put everybody at ease,” he said. “I do believe that the auditors are trying their hardest and all of them are trying to do a great job. I do have confidence in the process, but I don’t see the problem with looking into things a bit more.”