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Municipal elections and SD presidential primary could be delayed due to COVID-19

Amid growing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota lawmakers will consider a bill to postpone upcoming city elections in Sioux Falls, Brookings and other cities at least until June, and to allow Gov. Kristi Noem to delay the presidential primary from June 2 to July 28.

The elections bill is one of at least nine last-minute bills related to COVID-19 that lawmakers will consider on the last working day of the 2020 legislative session on Monday, March 30.

Among the the other bills proposed on Friday, March 27, labeled Drafts 928-936, are measures that would: speed delivery of unemployment benefits; require treatment of anyone with COVID-19; give the governor, health secretary and counties more authority in the crisis; allow for education standards to be changed; exempt schools from standardized testing; and extend driver’s licensing expiration dates.

Lawmakers are expected to discuss and vote on bills remotely by using communication technology that will allow them to take action without gathering in-person in Pierre.

The election bill would require the governing bodies of each city, county or school board with an election scheduled between April 14 and May 26 to choose any Tuesday in June as a replacement date for their election.

Those governments could opt to hold their postponed election in conjunction with the June 2 statewide primary if the governor does not delay that election, according to Kea Warne, director of the elections division at the Secretary of State’s Office.

Absentee voting periods would be extended through the new election date as well, Warne said. The elections bill, as with the other emergency virus bills, includes a sunset clause that would end its provisions on Dec. 31, 2020.

Another election bill likely to be discussed by lawmakers on March 30 is aimed at making the election process safer by limiting human contact during the pandemic.

State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, told News Watch he is working on a bill that would temporarily make voting absentee by mail easier. Specifically, his bill would give voters more options for verifying their identities when voting absentee and would encourage the Secretary of State to send absentee ballots to all potential voters. Voting by mail can reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 when compared to voting in-person at the polls.

“I think we also need to change the rules to make it easier to vote by mail for the June election because the June election could still be problematic,” Nesiba said.

Elections officials in South Dakota are becoming increasingly concerned that the health of voters and poll workers could be at risk during elections scheduled while the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Photo: Stock image

State law only allows absentee votes to be counted if they’ve been notarized in-person or include a copy of a government-issued photo ID. Nesiba said he’d like to see voters be allowed to sign an affidavit declaring their identity for absentee voting rather than submitting a copy of an ID.

The affidavit would also need to include a social security number or a driver’s license number for further verification.

“The key thing here is that it will allow people to vote without having to interact with another person,” Nesiba said. “I think you could increase participation and allow people to be able to stay at home and vote from home if necessary, if we’re still doing social distancing in June.”

Any new vote-by-mail rules could be made temporary, Nesiba said, and would serve as a test case for future emergencies and elections.

“I will have a proposal here that this would be a one-time thing. I’m not saying this should be a permanent change,” said Nesiba, who had not filed the bill as of mid-afternoon on Friday, March 27. “I’m saying we should do it for this year, for June and for November, and then the next legislature can decide whether it goes forward.”

The first of the state’s three major election dates this year, on April 14, is less than a month away, and South Dakota election laws don’t allow officials to delay an election for more than one week in the event of extreme weather, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Any move to temporarily change election laws and allow longer postponement would be welcome news for many city, county and school board officials. Across the state, cities have been heavily promoting absentee voting, recruiting younger poll workers and seeking ways to ensure voters don’t end up spreading the deadly COVID-19 virus further or faster.

“I had hoped that we’d be able to move our election, but that doesn’t appear to be possible now,” Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson told South Dakota News Watch on March 26.

Instead, she said, city officials were working to promote absentee voting in the little more than two weeks left before the April 14 election. Eligible voters should receive direct mailers from the city during the week of March 30 to April 3 with instructions on how to vote absentee, Hanson said.

Hanson said she also was worried that even if the absentee voting promotion effort was successful, some of her staff could wind up getting sick, which could cause problems in delivering services to citizens.

“We’re a small staff. There’s not a whole lot of people on the bench who can step up if we need them,” Hanson said.

South Dakota has had one election since the COVID-19 pandemic arose and the actions taken to pull off a successful vote while protecting human health could provide some lessons for upcoming elections.

Meade County Auditor Lisa Schieffer disinfects voting equipment to keep people safe during a March 23 special election in Sturgis. Upcoming elections in South Dakota could be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Jim Holland, Rapid City Journal

Meade County Auditor Lisa Schieffer oversaw a March 23 special election on whether to create a new taxation district to pay for ambulance services in rural areas surrounding Sturgis.

The proposal was hotly debated for months prior to the vote by residents concerned over losing ambulance services. At the time of the election, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in Meade County, but there had been a case in neighboring Pennington County. On election day, Gov. Kristi Noem announced seven new cases for a statewide total of 28, and she issued an emergency order urging greater limits on the actions of individuals and businesses.

With the local community center closed due to virus concerns, Schieffer decided to hold the election in a small room within the auditor’s office to increase the ability of her staff to control the movement of voters.

“When this outbreak came about, we really had to take a step back and take a look at the safety, not only of our voters, but our election workers and the public in general,” Schieffer said.

Using social-distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a guide, Schieffer instructed poll workers and voters to keep six feet between one another at all times. That meant separating voters while waiting in line and once they entered the election room.

Schieffer and her staff placed a high priority on maintaining a virus-free environment during the 12-hour election process. Only four voters were allowed in the room at any one time, and they used hand sanitizer upon entering and leaving the room.

“My staff and myself wore rubber gloves with the latest disinfectant, and all ballot sleeves, voting booths, pens, chairs and tables were disinfected every time somebody sat down to use them,” Schieffer said. “We kept doorways open so people didn’t touch door handles, and we had voters keep hold of their IDs rather than hand them over.”

In the end, 546 people voted in the election, about 240 of them in person at the auditor’s office, and the new district passed on a 480 to 66 tally. Schieffer said the 30.2% turnout from the 1,805 eligible voters was higher than the 20% turnout typical of a local special election.

Schieffer considers the election a success on all fronts. “To my amazement, because it was a very passionate election to begin with, the voters were gracious, they were patient, and we had not one complaint on how we were handling the election,” she said.

In addition to the statewide primary scheduled for June 2, Schieffer also will likely need to hold an election on May 19 for voters in the new ambulance district to select the five members of the governing board.

Like other county auditors across the state, Schieffer is eager to see what actions, if any, lawmakers may take to address concerns about upcoming elections during the final day of the 2020 legislative session.

Her plan so far is to mail absentee ballots to all eligible voters at each address and encourage them to mail in their ballots, reducing the number of in-person voters on election day.

That will be more expensive than a typical election, especially in the June primary when many more voters are eligible to vote, Schieffer said.

Since the March 23 ambulance vote, the number of COVID-19 cases has climbed statewide, and Meade County now has its first known case.

“There’s laws out there for inclement weather and other circumstances, but this is new,” she said. “This is really a new chapter in elections in South Dakota.”