Competing Republican views about ‘election integrity’ yield dozens of bills
More than 40 election-related measures have been filed so far
Voters line up to cast early ballots on Nov. 4, 2022, at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Political rhetoric about election integrity has translated into a cascade of election-related bills from feuding factions of South Dakota’s Republican Party.
Republican legislative leaders announced a package of election-related bills they want to adopt during this year’s 38-day legislative session in Pierre, which began last month and continues until March. Meanwhile, a subset of Republican lawmakers, many of them associated with the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, has its own set of bills.
All told, more than 40 election-related bills have been filed so far.
Republican leadership bills
Republican leaders call their bill package “Stronger and Safer for 2024.” House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, said it’s part of the party’s commitment to ensuring fair and honest elections.
“We promised the voters we’d look under every rock to make it better and we have a package of legislation to do just that,” Mortenson said in a written statement.
The package includes a bipartisan bill requiring ballot tabulation machines be publicly tested prior to elections (that bill awaits a Senate committee hearing), another establishing a post-election audit process in the state (that bill awaits a Senate vote), and one defining how far poll watchers should stand from the table at which voters announce their name and address (that bill has failed).
Freedom Caucus bills
Other bills are from Republicans associated with the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, which launched in June.
The caucus serves as one of 10 state-level branches of the State Freedom Caucus Network, launched with the help of former President Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. The caucus is led by Rep. Aaron Aylward, R-Harrisburg; Rep. Tony Randolph, R-Rapid City; and Rep. Tina Mulally, R-Rapid City.
Mulally is the prime sponsor of several election-related bills this year, including one requiring written consent to fill out someone else’s voter registration (that bill failed), one allowing the Legislature to sue the governor or any other state, county, or local election official for changing election rules or laws (that bill awaits an initial hearing), and another requiring the removal of the dead, the mentally incompetent and active felons from voter rolls each month (that bill awaits a Senate committee hearing).
Mulally said Republican leadership didn’t make her aware of the “Stronger and Safer for 2024” package. She doubts the sincerity of the Republican leadership’s commitment to election integrity.
“It’s difficult for me to believe their announcement is genuine if I don’t even know what’s going on,” Mulally said.
GOP split apparent
The shifting alliances among Republicans were visible when a committee of state representatives gave seven election bills their first hearing recently. Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, opposed some of the bills from Republican leadership.
For example, a bill brought by Mortenson aims to require the secretary of state to determine if a proposed constitutional amendment complies with a single-subject rule (that bill currently awaits a Senate committee hearing).
“I’m going to have to vote no,” Hansen said, despite the bill passing 12-1 with a Democrat on the committee, Rep. Oren Lesmiester, D-Parade, voting in its favor.
Then, when Freedom Caucus lobbyist Jordan Mason and Rep. John Sjaarda, R-Valley Springs, testified in favor of a bill allowing citizens to request court orders against any official for not enforcing a state election law or rule, Hansen was the lone representative voting in favor of the bill as it was rejected 12-1.
On another bill from Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, to extend rules regarding elder care absentee voting during a general election to all elections, Hansen was again the lone supporter of the bill as it failed 12-1.
One bill associated with the Freedom Caucus found unanimous support. When Mason and Sjaarda testified in favor of a bill to delay the destruction of ballots and poll books from 60 days after an election to 182 days, the bill passed unanimously, 13-0. It also passed unanimously in the full House, 70-0 (that bill awaits a Senate committee hearing).
Among other election-related bills, legislation banning ranked-choice voting in the state passed the Senate 31-4 and awaits a House committee hearing.
Legislation failed that would have permitted the display of campaign signage in cities prior to the beginning of absentee voting. Another bill would move the date for a statewide runoff election from 10 weeks to eight weeks after the primary (that bill awaits a Senate committee hearing).
Drop boxes for receiving absentee ballots could only be placed inside a county office, with access limited to office hours, if a bill that passed the full House of Representatives 57-11 passes the Senate and is signed into law by the governor.
The bill also would amend the state’s absentee voting laws in 19 different sections, including adding a list of conditions that bar an absentee ballot from being counted (like a felony, registration change to a different state, or mental incompetence), language that would require the counting of absentee ballots be open to poll watchers, and language that “prevents anyone from sending out a pre-filled absentee request form,” according to prime sponsor Rep. Kirk Chaffee, R-Whitewood.
One of the votes against the bill came from Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade. He said some people in rural areas have to drive 80-plus miles to access a drop box at odd hours, and limiting the hours they can access a drop box is an unnecessary hurdle.
The state’s handful of Democratic legislators have some election bills of their own this session. One that’s already failed sought to permit the use of tribal identification cards when registering to vote.
Some of the election-related bills introduced so far this year in the South Dakota Legislature:
- A resolution asking voters at the next general election to amend the state constitution to restrict legislators to term limits of eight total years in each chamber, eliminating the current option of coming back for non-consecutive eight-year periods of service (the bill awaits its first hearing).
- A bill introduced at the request of the state Supreme Court chief justice and already delivered to the governor to specify dates and provide more options for the convening of recount boards for primary elections.
- A bill to permit the display of campaign signage in municipalities prior to the beginning of absentee voting, which failed.
- A bill requiring written consent to fill out someone else’s voter registration, which failed.
- A bill allowing the Legislature to sue the governor or any other state, county or local election official for changing election laws, which is pending a hearing.
- A bill requiring the removal of the dead, the mentally incompetent and active felons from voter rolls each month awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill that would introduce numerous new requirements for removing ineligible voters from the voter rolls awaits its first hearing.
- A bill to increase campaign contribution limits has died in the House.
- A bill to modify a statewide runoff election to take place eight weeks after a primary rather than 10 has passed the House and awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill to revise the qualifications to be a member of a recount board, including a ban on candidates for the office and relatives of the candidates, awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill to revise the state law allowing the destruction of ballots and poll books from 60 days after an election to 182 days awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill to authorize school boards to modify the length of terms for members from three years to four to allow for holding joint elections awaits a vote in the House.
- A bill changing pre-election testing requirements for ballot tabulation machines, including opening the testing to the public, awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill to extend rules regarding elder care absentee voting from general elections to all elections has failed.
- A bill to require the secretary of state to determine if a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment complies with the single subject requirement and is not a constitutional revision awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill authorizing any registered voter to request a court order against any official they think has not followed election laws has failed.
- A bill to define how far poll watchers should stand from the table at which voters announce their name and address has failed.
- A bill placing limits on ballot drop boxes and altering some provisions of absentee voting awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill awaiting its first hearing would allow governor candidates to select their own running mate instead of having the running mate selected at a political convention; the bill would also move the nominating process for the attorney general and secretary of state from political conventions to primary elections.
- A bill to require candidates for party precinct committeeman or committeewoman to include an email address and phone number in the written statement submitted to the county auditor awaits a House committee hearing.
- A bill to provide a route to recall school board members failed.
- A bill requiring the secretary of state to maintain a continuously updated list of election candidates on its website awaits a House committee hearing.
- A bill to reform the process of drawing election precinct boundaries and the establishment of polling places failed.
- A bill to authorize legislative intervention into certain cases pertaining to election law awaits a House committee hearing.
- A bill introducing numerous new requirements for the maintenance and verification of voter registration files is pending its first hearing.
- A bill to permit the use of tribal identification cards when registering to vote has failed.
- A bill making numerous changes to voter registration is pending a House committee hearing.
- A bill to allocate $313,107 to the Office of the Secretary of State for voter roll maintenance, ballot machines and election security, has been approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee for possible inclusion in the state budget.
- A bill to establish post-election audits awaits a Senate vote.
- Another bill to require post-election audits is pending a hearing.
- A bill to implement stricter residency requirements for the purposes of voter registration awaits a Senate vote.
- A bill pending its first hearing would increase the petition signature threshold to place an initiated constitutional amendment on the ballot from 5 to 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election, with no more than one-35th of the signatures from any one legislative district.
- A bill to provide for the public election of State Brand Board members is pending its first hearing.
- A bill introduced at the request of the Office of the Attorney General to enhance the penalty for petition circulation perjury is awaiting a House committee hearing.
- A resolution that would ask voters in the 2024 general election to do away with contested judicial elections has been withdrawn.
- A bill that would make it more difficult to force an election to relocate a county seat awaits a vote in the House.
- A resolution failed that would have asked voters to amend the state constitution to require a delay before a proposed initiated constitutional amendment could be proposed again.
- A bill clarifying registration and residence requirements for voting at a township meeting awaits a Senate committee hearing.
- A bill to remove the option to register to vote by a signed statement when a voter lacks other forms of identification awaits an initial hearing.
- A resolution asking the voters at the next general election to make the language within state law and the constitution gender-neutral awaits a House committee hearing.
- A bill creating term limits for future public utilities commissioners awaits a vote in the Senate.
- A bill that would place new restrictions on absentee voting and outlaw ballot drop boxes awaits an initial hearing.
- A bill revising provisions related to residency for voter registration, including a ban on using campgrounds or businesses as an address (such as a mail-forwarding service for full-time RVers) awaits an initial hearing.
- A bill providing a penalty for the expenditure of public funds to influence the outcome of an election awaits a Senate vote.
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