Seeking election integrity behind closed doors

Secretary of state conducts meetings in private after promising transparency

June 19, 2023 2:19 pm
Secretary of State-Elect Monae Johnson celebrates her Nov. 8, 2022, election victory. Behind Johnson (from left) stands her campaign manager, Gretchen Weible, and Weible's husband Rick Weible. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Secretary of State-Elect Monae Johnson celebrates her Nov. 8, 2022, election victory. Behind Johnson (from left) stands her campaign manager, Gretchen Weible, and Weible’s husband Rick Weible. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

The shouting about the mishandling of the 2020 presidential election has been long-winded and false. However, it has led a number of states, including South Dakota, to make moves designed to increase election integrity. One move was the passage in the last legislative session of Senate Bill 160 which requires county auditors to conduct a post-election audit within 15 days after an election in 5% of the precincts in the county.

Post-election audits will be one of the topics when Secretary of State Monae Johnson convenes a 15-member group to conduct a summer study of election audits and draft legislation. The group includes four county auditors, one former county auditor, three lawmakers, two county commissioners, two city finance officers, a board of elections member, a city mayor and a citizen from Sioux Falls.

The Secretary of State’s Office told KELO that the plan for the committee is discussion on June 21, a draft on July 20 and finalization of the draft on Aug. 22. As far as what’s said in the discussion or drafted by the group, we’ll all have to wait to find out. Johnson has said she will conduct her summer study away from public view. In other words, the group will do its work in secret.

Johnson is likely within her rights to close the door on the public as she conducts those meetings. Unlike a legislative summer study, the secretary of state’s ad hoc committee meeting isn’t required to be held in public. However, just because Johnson can close the meeting doesn’t mean that she should.

The trouble with Monae Johnson and Jell-O

In the KELO story, Hand County Auditor Doug DeBoer explained that the meetings should be closed so that any disagreements among study group members are kept among themselves. He thinks it’s best if the study group members can speak freely.

Rep. Kameron Nelson, a Sioux Falls Democrat, is also one of the study group members. He calls having the meetings closed to the public “inappropriate.” He’s right. Elections should be transparent, as should be any discussion about election integrity, how to enhance it and how to legislate it.

Most of the people in the study group are elected officials or former elected officials. They know all about conducting the people’s business in public. It’s the way they live their professional lives. It’s doubtful that any of them need to shut out the public to comfortably say what they think in a meeting. Let’s hope that, like Nelson, more of them express their displeasure about doing their work in secret.

The irony here is that Senate Bill 160, which calls for the post-election audits, mandates that they be held in full view of the public. The auditor will post the time and place of the audit in the same manner as the posting of the time and place of a public meeting. That’s transparency in government and that’s the way the secretary of state’s study group meetings should be conducted.

While South Dakota isn’t a hotbed of election malfeasance, the bill calling for post-election audits was something everyone in the Legislature could agree on. It sailed through the Senate and House unanimously. A Senate vote to comply with an amendment placed on the bill in the House garnered one no vote. It’s obvious that lawmakers want to ensure election integrity at the South Dakota ballot box.

One of South Dakota Searchlight’s first commentaries was about an interview with Johnson in which she skillfully danced around answering questions about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, solidifying her standing as an election denier. At one point she dodged the question by saying: “I want to move forward and bring that trust forward. The way to do that is more transparency.”

Well, conducting her study group meetings in secret is the exact opposite of transparency. Like the post-election audits themselves, Johnson’s meetings should be held in public. That would be a good first step toward ensuring election integrity.



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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.