Price tag for post-election audits could be larger than lawmaker expectations

Secretary of State’s Office says accurate estimate is ‘indeterminable’

By: - September 29, 2023 5:37 pm
Brown County Auditor Lynn Heupel explains how the tabulator machine works to count election ballots in November 2022. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Brown County Auditor Lynn Heupel explains how the tabulator machine works to count election ballots in November 2022. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The cost to conduct post-election audits in South Dakota could vastly exceed an estimate calculated for lawmakers earlier this year, according to a survey of county auditors.

Or it won’t; neither the Secretary of State’s Office nor county auditors are sure.

South Dakota’s Board of Elections signed off this week on most of the rules counties will use to spot-check results in primary and general elections for accuracy.

The rules are an outgrowth of a campaign pledge from Secretary of State Monae Johnson to remove South Dakota from the short list of states lacking post-election audits, and of lawmakers’ near-unanimous support of a 2023 bill to create them. The rules are now set for a November appearance before the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee.

At least one significant question remains, however: What will it cost the state to perform the now-mandatory audits?

The Board of Elections upped the reimbursement amounts for the audit-related expenses incurred by counties on Wednesday, but the actual price tag for the work is unclear. Counties will be expected to submit their expenses for things like making copies or buying postage, hourly wages for the post-election auditors, mileage and meals. Auditors made clear before and during Wednesday’s meeting that they’d like to see all costs recouped.

Post-election audit rules spark debate on voter intent

The possible tally of those costs across the state is wide open. The secretary of state’s efforts to calculate them came out too muddy to be reliable.

The Legislature’s fiscal impact statement on the 2023 bill that led to the creation of a post-election audit system based its estimate of $15,950 on costs from Idaho. 

A fiscal note update signed by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Deadrick filed in advance of Wednesday’s rules hearing, however, noted that the Idaho dollars paid for a general election, not a general and a primary. Idaho’s price tag was also tied to audits in 44 counties. South Dakota has 66 counties.

Based on the Idaho figures, South Dakota’s county tally and its expectation of post-election audits for both primaries and general elections, Deadrick wrote, the fiscal impact would be about $47,850.

To get a better sense of how the audits might play out in South Dakota, though, the Secretary of State’s Office surveyed counties on potential costs and came up with a different figure.

Forty-one percent of auditors said they couldn’t provide a number, as such audits have never occurred before in the state. Based on the costs submitted by the 34 auditors who did venture a guess – ranging from $500 to $20,000 and averaging $4,389 per county – the Secretary of State’s Office estimated the combined costs to audit next year’s primary and general election would be $579,348.

“Due to the significant range between Idaho’s cost data and the auditor survey, we believe the fiscal impact is indeterminable at this time,” Deadrick’s fiscal note reads.

Lincoln County Auditor Sheri Lund told South Dakota Searchlight that she was among the auditors to send a figure, but she admitted hers was a squishy number.

As no county has performed a post-election audit, Lund said, auditors don’t have a clear comparison. 

Recounts can be spendy affairs, Lund said, but they’re also considerably different than audits. Recounts focus on one election contest, rather than 5% of the ballots in two races across two precincts, which is what Lincoln County would be required to do in a post-election audit. Tabulation machines can be used as part of the recount, she said, with a sample of ballots hand counted. Questionable ballots are scrutinized to divine voter intent.

The discrepancy in the cost of this program is huge. I mean, you have one site where I think we got $16,000, in some places it was $116,000, we saw another one that was a half a million plus, and we don't know.

– John Lake, South Dakota Board of Elections

But voter intent isn’t part of the post-election audit, and the tabulators are meant to stay dormant throughout the process while the hand-counting of every audited ballot takes place.

“I budgeted $15,000 for it, because I have no way of measuring what it’s going to cost,” Lund said. “That’s two elections and 40-some thousand possible voters. So it’s hard for me to say how long it’s going to take us to do it.”

At Wednesday’s Board of Elections meeting, member and former lawmaker John Lake, of Gettysburg, said he’s concerned about the costs. 

Regardless of the rules passed on Wednesday, he said, the board will likely need to revisit the issue after next year’s primary and general elections.

“The discrepancy in the cost of this program is huge. I mean, you have one site where I think we got $16,000, in some places it was $116,000, we saw another one that was a half a million plus, and we don’t know,” Lake said.

The day after the meeting, board member Scott McGregor of Rapid City said he expects that the Secretary of State’s Office will need to ask lawmakers for more money.

“That’s going to become a question next session as to whether the legislature, when looking now at the cost of what they’ve done by requesting these audits, will go along with that, McGregor said.

Rep. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, chairs the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee. If the secretary of state needs to ask for additional funding, Hunhoff said, the committee will expect to hear details.

“I think that there has to be some kind of justification,” Hunhoff said. “What exactly are we looking at? Is it just paying for the audits? Is it for the workers? Is this for time? Is it for machines? Right now, I don’t know.”



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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.