Monday, September 21, 2020

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South Dakota election officials say vote-by-mail and voting at polls will be safe and fair

The people who will operate and oversee the 2020 general election in South Dakota are highly confident that the vote for president, Congress, legislative seats and statewide ballot measures will be done fairly, accurately and in a timely manner without a risk of fraud.

Despite concerns raised by President Donald Trump and others who have questioned the legitimacy of widespread absentee voting by mail, all South Dakota county auditors who responded to a South Dakota News Watch poll say they believe the 2020 election in South Dakota will be fair and accurate.

The 25 auditors who responded to News Watch by email were unanimous in their answers on several questions, including their conviction that absentee voting can be done fairly, that in-person voting on Nov. 3 can be done safely, and that results from the election will be accurate. All auditors said they have experience in managing voting by mail, and most said they are taking extra steps to ensure an orderly and safe election. Many also said it is costing more to run the election this year.

Record numbers of voters in South Dakota and across the country are expected to cast ballots by mail this year, mostly over concerns about exposure to the potentially deadly coronavirus while voting in person in November but also for the convenience of voting early from home.

South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett said that as of Sept. 9, the state had received 108,580 applications for absentee ballots, representing about 20% of the state’s roughly 558,000 registered voters. Ballots will be sent to voters starting on Friday, Sept. 18.

The 2020 general election will bring a variety of challenges for elections officials. In addition to processing far more absentee ballots, auditors who are the ground-level, local operators of elections in South Dakota must prepare safe environments for in-person voting amid a pandemic.

In the News Watch survey, a wide majority of auditors said they do not foresee delays in reporting of election results even though they predict higher turnout. Two-thirds of auditors said they are offended by the national political rhetoric that has called into question whether the American electoral system can operate efficiently and produce accurate results amid the pandemic.

Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz said the integrity of the election is driven by the integrity of the people who are part of the process.

“I’ve got really good people, Republicans and Democrats, working with each other, and they’re not going to let anything happen,” Litz said. “There’s not going to be any shenanigans.”

Barnett said the groundbreaking decision to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in South Dakota in April was an attempt to give voters the opportunity to vote without the risk of going to polling sites where they could be exposed to coronavirus.

The move had a significant impact on voting during the June primary, Barnett said. The percentage of votes cast as absentee rose from about 14% in the 2016 primary to 58% in the 2020 primary.

Furthermore, Barnett said, overall voter turnout rose after voters received the application in the mail. He said the applications put voting on their radar, and many voters realized for the first time the convenience of voting absentee. Voter turnout rose to 28% in the 2020 primary compared with 26% in the 2018 primary and 22% in the primary in 2016, Barnett said.

“If you really want to dive down into it, I would argue that those forms we sent out helped drive that higher turnout,” Barnett said in an interview with News Watch. “It was probably not on the front of most people’s minds, but when it was mailed to them they said, ‘I think this is something I could take advantage of.’”

Barnett said he is confident that the election process will be fair and accurate even with a record number of absentee ballots being filed, most sent in by mail.

“I’m comfortable with the safeguards we have in place,” he said, referring to the signature-checking and ID-confirmation processes used by elections officials. “It’s little archaic, but in my mind, it’s pretty secure.”

Barnett said he is also confident that the U.S. Postal Service can handle the increased number of absentee ballots filed by mail, though he warned voters not to wait till the last minute to request their ballots or delay sending them in once filled out. Trump and others have questioned whether the postal service can be trusted to properly handle high levels of mail-in ballots.

“The way I understand it, it’s like Christmas cards at Christmastime in that we know these are coming,” Barnett said. “You’ve got the 46 days to early vote, so do your best as a voter to allow some adequate processing time on the front end and the back end.”

Miner County Auditor Susan Connor said she is highly confident that the 2020 general election can be conducted with integrity in spite of any challenges presented by the pandemic.

“South Dakota county auditors take great pride and many measures to ensure that all elections are conducted fairly and accurately,” Connor wrote to News Watch.

In South Dakota, voters have been allowed to vote absentee since 1913, and the process was expanded to allow anyone to vote absentee for any reason in 2003. Voters can submit completed absentee ballots by mail or in person at their local auditor’s office until voting ends on Election Day.

To vote by mail, voters must be registered and request a ballot either through the application sent out by Barnett in April, the state’s online ballot portal, or at their local auditor’s office.

Ballot requests must be signed and include a copy of a voter’s official photo identification, such as a driver’s license. When received, the application signature is scanned by election workers, the ID is checked and if the application is approved, the ballot is then mailed to the voter.

Once the ballot is filled out, the sealed envelope containing the ballot must be signed on the outside and sent back to the auditor’s office, where the signature is compared with the application signature and must match.

Susan Kiepke, Davison County auditor, said in an email to News Watch that her office has encouraged people to vote absentee by mail. In anticipation of receiving more absentee ballots, she has hired more people to process absentee ballots on Election Day. Kiepke said she expects the general election will go off without a hitch as it did in the primary.

“I don’t know of anything I would do differently, as the process went pretty smoothly,” she wrote.

Pennington County Auditor Cindy Mohler expects the county will mail out about 20,000 absentee ballots to voters who want to avoid going to the polls on election day. Mohler saw the impact of the pandemic on early voting in the June primary election, when the county saw 13,000 absentee ballots cast and only 8,500 cast in person.

Amy Scott-Stolz, president of the League of Women Voters of South Dakota, significant research indicates that neither Democrats nor Republicans tend to benefit or suffer more when widespread voting-by-mail is allowed.

Confirmed cases of voter fraud are uncommon in America and most cases result in prosecutions. Recent data analyses have also found that fraud is rare in the five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — where widespread vote-by-mail has taken place for years and in which ballots are sent directly to registered voters.

The Heritage Foundation showed that South Dakota had five cases of election fraud from 2005 to 2020, three of which were related to candidate petitions and two which consisted of voters casting more than one ballot. All cases ended in criminal convictions or entry into a judicial diversion program.

Litz does not endorse, nor appreciate, the rhetoric by Trump and others who are questioning the validity of the upcoming election or suggesting that widespread fraud or attempted fraud will occur.

“We all know that’s garbage; I’ve not yet seen evidence that this happens,” Litz said. “I think it’s BS and for that to be put out there, and for other people to play into that lie, it’s offensive and it’s also dangerous for our election process.”

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