By MERRILEE GASSER
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) – Potential illegal use of drop boxes, delayed election results, and reports of voters being denied Republican ballots were some of the concerns raised during the South Dakota Legislative Operations and Audit Committee.
South Dakota lawmakers grilled Secretary of State Steve Barnett about the use of drop boxes during the June 7 primary election.
“My understanding is that drop boxes are a violation of South Dakota codified law 12-19-7,” said Rep. Sue Peterson, R-Sioux Falls. “So that would cause me some concern about whether that was a violation of law.”
Mr. Barnett told the committee Wednesday he was aware of drop boxes or mobile drop boxes being used during the primary election on June 7. A worker from the county auditor’s office was stationed at one mobile drop box set up at the University of Sioux Falls “to save voters time.” Twenty-one counties used “standard drop boxes,” Mr. Barnett said.
“In terms of the mobile one it does say it can be hand delivered,” replied Mr. Barnett. “You would be handing it to the county auditor worker. To me, that’s hand delivery.”
As for the 21 counties that used standard drop boxes, Mr. Barnett said he had an email from the former attorney general saying they were permissible.
“Are the county auditors accountable to follow the law and are they accountable to follow the ordinances and the actions that are taken by the county commission?” asked Ms. Peterson.
“I’d say they’re accountable to follow the law,” Mr. Barnett replied.
The use of drop boxes in the state came about during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Mr. Barnett.
During the June 7 primary, some voters were handed incorrect ballots, the committee said. When asked how this happened, Mr. Barnett cited issues due to redistricting and human error.
When asked why some voters who have been lifetime Republicans were denied Republican ballots, Mr. Barnett said his office was not aware of any Republicans who were denied and said those voters were not aware that their party affiliation was not Republican.
During public comment, Jessica Pollema, who was a candidate on the ballot for Lincoln County Auditor, said Republicans being denied ballots was the biggest issue with the primary election.
“We had people all day long being turned away from voting on a Republican ballot,” said Ms. Pollema, later adding, “People were turned away in tears.”
She said she has affidavits from many people who said their voter registration was changed without their knowledge or consent to either no party affiliation (NPA) or Democrat.
“Most of these voters had no idea you could be registered as an independent or NPA,” Ms. Pollema said. “People know how they are registered to vote.”
She went on to say the issue was proof that voter rolls were hacked and not secured.
“This is a huge issue. This is voter suppression,” said Ms. Pollema.
Mr. Barnett said he intends to remind voters to check their voter registration before the next election.
Another issue raised was poll watchers’ experiences in Lincoln County as well as members of the public who were told they could not observe and escorted out.
“This is the first time I’m hearing of anybody being escorted out, I guess,” said Mr. Barnett. “I wasn’t there.”
Ms. Pollema said the watchers experienced intimidation and were told they were not allowed to ask questions.
“It was a hostile environment in Lincoln County and it doesn’t produce any public confidence in what’s happening with our vote counting,” said Ms. Pollema.
When committee members questioned Mr. Barnett over this point, he cited a South Dakota statute that said proceedings at ballot counting locations “shall be open to the public.”
Lincoln County was also the source of questioning over delayed reporting results. Ms. Pollema said the county was about an hour and a half late to report results.
Mr. Barnett said he had a conversation with one of the Lincoln County auditors, who told him they do not fully report their precincts until the end of the night after two people from their office have sat down and verified all the results.
When asked to define what verifying the results meant, Mr. Barnett said the tally sheet and poll book are reconciled to ensure the number of ballots counted equals the number of ballots handed out at the polls.