Bill to complicate county seat relocations limps out of committee

By: - January 20, 2023 2:02 pm
The South Dakota Capitol is reflected in Capitol Lake. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The South Dakota Capitol is reflected in Capitol Lake. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

A bill that would make it more difficult to move a county seat to another city has been stripped down by committee amendments but will move on to the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 56, as originally introduced, would have made numerous changes to the state law (SDCL 7-6) governing the relocation of a county seat, including raising the percentage of petition signatures from 15% to 40% of registered voters in the county, and raising the voter approval from two-thirds to three-fourths majority, among several other changes.

Bill would make it harder to move county seats; opponents call it ‘antidemocratic’

However, legislators on the Senate Local Government Committee on Friday amended the bill to only consider one subsection (SDCL 7-6-4). The amended bill would raise the percent of petition signatures from 15% to 20% of registered voters in the county, explicitly instruct the county auditor to verify petition signatures are from registered voters within the concerned county, and set a July 1 petition deadline ahead of the general election.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, in response to a failed effort in South Dakota’s Dewey County to move the county seat from Timber Lake to Eagle Butte. The county’s population is nearly 80% Native American, and the county is within the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Carl Petersen, who circulated the petition but failed to turn in enough valid signatures, wanted to move the county seat to make local government and services more accessible to people in the county, particularly Native Americans, by moving the county seat to its most populated city. He also said Eagle Butte is more centralized than Timber Lake, requiring less drive time for several county residents to access services.

Committee member and Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, said in committee discussion that there were “too many unknowns” with how the originally introduced bill would affect South Dakota’s 65 other counties without taking feedback from those entities. Deibert originally suggested moving the bill to the 41st day – which would effectively defeat the bill, since this year’s session is only 38 days – but that motion failed.

Headshot of Ryan Maher (R-28
Sen. Ryan Maher is a Republican lawmaker representing Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Perkins and Ziebach counties. He resides in Dewey County. (Courtesy of South Dakota Legislature)

Proponents who testified in favor of SB 56 included Maher and Dewey County elected officials and employees.

Dewey County Auditor Mary Ducheneaux informed the committee that although she attempted to validate signatures on Petersen’s petitions, the Secretary of State’s Office instructed her that verifying signers were county residents and registered voters was not part of the validation process.

Opponents who testified were concerned about how the bill would affect Native American communities across South Dakota.

Sen. Sean Bordeaux, D-Mission, testified in opposition and said he hopes to establish Todd County’s seat in Mission eventually. The county currently does not have its own county seat, but instead contracts services for several offices with Tripp County in Winner, which is about 40 miles from Mission.

Other counties across South Dakota have faced similar attempts to move the county seat. Residents in Perkins County tried to move the county seat from Bison, population 384, to Lemmon, population 1,252. 

Gann Valley, population 12, became the country’s least populated county seat following the 2010 census. Fort Thompson, Buffalo County’s most populated city at 1,266, is on the Crow Creek Reservation and 25 miles away from Gann Valley, said Kellen Returns From Scout, with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association.

“Nothing has been articulated to justify the increased burdens,” Returns from Scout said of SB 56. “I believe this is a blatant suppression attempt on the voting power of Native Americans in our state.”




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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.