Election 2022 sees ballots hand counted, drop boxes removed, security increased

Auditors anticipate several issues to be addressed at 2023 State Legislature

By: - November 7, 2022 4:35 am
Sealed and signed envelopes are dropped into a box at the Brown County Administration Building after registered voters fill out in-person absentee ballots. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Sealed and signed envelopes are dropped into a box at the Brown County Administration Building after registered voters fill out in-person absentee ballots. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

It’s a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole, said South Dakota Sec. of State Steve Barnett.

Citizen groups have spent the last year questioning, challenging and pressuring officials at the state and local level to change South Dakota’s voter registration, absentee voting or ballot counting processes — typically based on incorrect information found on far right websites and social media channels.

The influx of challenges has left some county auditors and other government officials tired, overworked, doubting their careers and in some cases, questioning their safety.

“Someone pops up and pushes on something one week and then it’s a new topic the next week and the next,” Barnett said. “You prove these tabulator machines work and then the next week it’s someone or something else. It can be time consuming.”

While educating voters on the process is part of the auditor’s job, the challenges and pressures of the 2022 cycle have influenced how auditors conduct elections, including how votes will be counted, how drop boxes are used and how election workers are trained.

Cindy Mohler has been Pennington County Auditor since 2019, but she’s worked in the office since 1999. She knows the process and believes it is a secure system, but she said it’s frustrating to respond to several information requests and hear challenges to the process so frequently, including during an October Pennington County Commission meeting.

“They said it several times that they’re not out to attack auditors, but when you have people coming at you with all of these challenges and information requests and questions, it kind of feels like they are,” Mohler said.

Public invited to test runs, counting demonstrations

Groups that question election integrity began to pop up in South Dakota after the 2020 election, Barnett said, after then-President Donald Trump lost and claimed that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. Trump filed more than 60 lawsuits contesting either the election or the way it was administered. None of the cases have succeeded..

County auditors in South Dakota have been mailed letters, emailed, approached in-person and called thousands of times by people in- and out-of-state who question South Dakota’s voter registration and ballot counting processes.

Mohler spent half an hour recently explaining how voter registration checks and balances work to a small group, assuring that everything is done manually and not through a computer.

“Tabulators have never been an issue; there aren’t modems in them and they aren’t connected to the internet,” Barnett said, adding that all tabulators are certified by the state and test-run before the election. “There is a small percentage of the public who want to believe the tabulators are connected to the internet and compromised, but they’re not.”

Brown County election worker Cheral Finstad helps resident Vickie Wilson request an in-person absentee ballot while other county residents fill out their ballots on Friday, Nov. 4.
Brown County election worker Cheral Finstad helps resident Vickie Wilson request an in-person absentee ballot while other county residents fill out their ballots on Friday, Nov. 4. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Demonstrations and test runs are standard ahead of each election and are open to the public. For 2022, county auditors have invited county commissioners, legislators and specific community members – especially those who’ve questioned how the election process works – to watch and participate in the demonstrations. Some counties saw a good turnout, with at least a handful of onlookers. Others didn’t see crowds larger than previous years.

Minnehaha County Auditor Ben Kyte ran a test deck of 2,300 ballots through four tabulator machines at a public demonstration on Nov. 3, showing that the tabulator correctly counted the ballots. No one showed up for the demonstration except for a reporter from the local ABC/NBC affiliate Dakota News Now, Kyte said.

“I’m glad it was covered by local media so they can show and let people know the test was conducted and successful,” said Kyte. “The public should have some confidence that the tabulating machines are working well.”

Two people in Minnehaha County sued Kyte’s office on Wednesday, asking a judge to block election workers from opening absentee ballots “until such time as the voter’s signed statement, signature and residence in the State of South Dakota is confirmed.”

A judge has yet to rule on the request, which was filed by Minnehaha County residents Vicky Buhr and Gary Meyer.

Ballot counting during election night is also open to the public, Barnett said, to ensure transparency in the election process.

Brown County Auditor Lynn Heupel poses for a photo outside the Auditor's Office in Aberdeen.
Brown County Auditor Lynn Heupel poses for a photo outside the Auditor’s Office in Aberdeen. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

County auditors in Brown and Codington counties took their public demonstrations a step further by hand-counting ballots to prove that the tabulators are significantly faster and more accurate.

Codington Auditor Cindy Brugman’s hand count didn’t immediately match the tabulated count, which she attributed to multiple interruptions while hand-counting ballots, according to the Aberdeen News.

“We’re trying to encourage people to come in so they see how the process works and so they can understand,” said Lynn Heupel, Brown County Auditor. “We did have one individual, a resident in Brown County who questioned the process, literally come in and walk around the machine. He saw that the only thing plugged into the wall was a power cord — no modem, no computer — so now he’s aware of that. I think he was kind of surprised because of everything else he’d been hearing.”

Drop box legality questions force auditors to close them

Hughes County has used a drop box outside its administration building since the 2020 election. 

Residents have used the box to drop off both property tax payments and absentee ballots. The drop box is monitored with a security camera, and absentee ballots go through the same verification process as they would during an in-person drop-off, said Auditor Thomas Oliva.

But after fielding several questions and threats of legal action, Oliva closed the drop box earlier this season. That doesn’t take away anyone’s right to vote, he said, since they can still drop the ballot off in-person. Oliva has also offered to physically pick up ballots from homes if the voter can’t make the trip.

“At that time, I was at my wit’s end,” Oliva said. “I would just as soon get rid of it than have people say that box is compromised. It seemed easier than to sit there and defend myself all day long over it.”

The continued pressure to answer questions and fill out information requests is starting to take its toll. Some information requests have been very in depth or request information that doesn’t exist. Discussions can get heated, Oliva said.

“It makes you lose sleep at night and question yourself,” Oliva said. “I plan on making a career of this, but you never know as more challenges come. Like these types of things sure make getting a job in the private sector alluring.”

The Hughes County Courthouse in Pierre, SD, pictured on Nov. 2, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

For years, the Pennington County Auditor’s Office has used a drop box in the foyer of the county administration building for absentee ballots. But as with Oliva’s office, a group of people threatened to take legal action over the Rapid City box. With a week left before the election, Mohler decided to close it.

“The drop box isn’t out on a corner. It’s inside the foyer, in the wall of the county administration building and locked into a box that is only accessible to the auditor’s office,” Mohler said. “We felt that was the same as someone delivering their absentee ballot to the office.”

The drop box was meant to be a convenience, letting voters avoid a wait at the auditor’s office. The box also let the elderly or disabled avoid a walk all the way into the building.

“We just decided it was best to close it up and let the Legislature address it — define what constitutes an on-site and off-site drop box,” Mohler said. “Is it the same as walking into our office? It just needs to be defined.”

Auditors, election workers consider public safety

After years of new cycles surrounding “The Big Lie,” the term attached to Trump’s denial of the 2020 election results, it’s no surprise that auditors would entertain questions and challenges about election security. 

Election workers are also starting to question their safety.

“I don’t sense that we have issues in Minnehaha County, but in those areas where incidents happen they probably didn’t expect them either,” Kyte said. “We’re more aware of concerns and we try to prepare for those situations. Election workers are more aware, so they’ve asked for security measures too.”

Kyte is in contact with the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to prepare for any threats.

Additional safety and security training was given to Minnehaha County election workers, Kyte said, such as ensuring election workers know their precinct address to report to authorities if needed in an emergency.

Mohler talked with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and the Rapid City Police Department to make law enforcement aware of pressures on auditors and county commissioners. Mohler usually requests just one officer to stand security at the courthouse on election night. This year, she’s requested two.

“Just in case,” she said. “I try to believe in the good in people. I don’t think we’re going to need it, but I also want to be prepared.”

Tripp County first SD county in two decades to hand count votes

Auditor for Tripp and Todd counties Barb Desersa has run elections since 2014. She runs unopposed in 2022, so she plans to continue another four years. But she wonders if it’s worth it.

“Honestly, if I had something to go back to I probably wouldn’t run again,” Desersa said. “I just have a few years left until retirement, so we’ll try to stick it out, but it does become challenging.”

Barb Desersa, Auditor for Tripp and Todd counties in south-central South Dakota, will hand count an estimated 1,050 ballots from Tripp County in the 2022 election.
Barb Desersa, Auditor for Tripp and Todd counties in south-central South Dakota, will hand count an estimated 1,050 ballots from Tripp County in the 2022 election. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Desersa and her staff and election volunteers will hand count an estimated 1,050 ballots on Nov. 8. The Tripp County Commission unanimously voted on Oct. 11 to hand count ballots in addition to tabulating votes. The hand counted number will be the official tally sent to the state, and Desersa said it could take days to finish.

The decision makes Tripp the first South Dakota county in two decades to hand count election ballots and submit them to the state, said Kea Warne, director of the division of elections in the Secretary of State’s Office. Todd County’s votes will be tabulated.

The South Dakota Canvassing Group, which bills itself as “concerned citizens working together to secure election integrity,” has sent members to speak at county commission meetings across the state since late 2021, including Minnehaha, Pennington, Lincoln, Brookings, Hanson, Fall River and Tripp counties.

Tripp County Commissioners used an election law on the books since 1994 that allows the “governing body” of an election to overrule the county auditor by adopting, experimenting with or abandoning the tabulator machines.

Fall River County will also hand count a portion of its ballots from two of its smallest precincts, said Sue Ganje, Fall River County Auditor, after a similar commission meeting. 

The tabulator results from all precincts will still be the official count submitted to the state, however.

Ganje said she doesn’t know why her pre-election demonstration and the test deck tabulator check are not enough to prove the machines are accurate.

The situation has prompted auditors and the Secretary of State’s Office to think about changes to state law during the 2023 legislative session that could address operational authority at the county level.

Election questions, definitions to be addressed by 2023 Legislature

Auditors anticipate several election process questions to be addressed at the 2023 legislative session.

Mohler hopes to see a discussion that would clearly define a drop box and its legality. She also expects to see legislation to tighten definitions of residency in the state and place restrictions on how long residents must permanently live in South Dakota before they can register to vote.

County auditors and Barnett want to clarify which county officials can decide how to count ballots, since the brunt of hand-counting responsibility falls on the county auditors. Ideally, Barnett said, hand counting would be taken off the table.

“The remedy for that would be to bring forth legislation to tweak that particular statute — switch it to say something like, ‘county auditors shall use tabulators to count election votes,’” Barnett said.

Post-election audits are also a concern.

“I truly anticipate that this is what will be coming to us,” said Ganje, the Fall River County Auditor. “I believe some type of audit is going to be initiated through the session next year.”

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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.