South Dakota Republican Secretary of State Steve Barnett on Friday testified that Senate Bill 24 would “create a system that provides South Dakotans with a useful tool” in terms of allowing online voter registration.
However, the GOP-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee put a quick halt to the effort, passing an amendment to the original legislation that makes it so voters it would allow voters to change their address online, but not register to vote.
Ultimately, Senate Bill 24, which had been intended to create an online voter registration interface allowing voters to register online, passed the committee with the amendment. Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said this “completely guts” the original bill.
Currently, South Dakota is one of only 10 states that does not allow voter registration to occur online.
There were multiple testimonies from the bill’s supporters, among them Barnett, while no one testified against the bill. However, Senate Majority Whip Jim Bolin, R-Canton, proposed an amendment that would only allow voters to change their address online, but not register to vote.
Barnett said the bill was drafted with security as the main focus and that online registration would actually increase the accuracy of voter information by allowing it to be easily updated, eliminate problems of illegible handwriting, and decrease the cost to taxpayers. Online registration would require the same verification steps that are currently performed on paper.
“We feel the bill before you would create a system that provides South Dakotans with a useful tool, but also benefiting [sic] the state,” Barnett said.
Cante Heart, native outreach and field director for the South Dakota Democrats, testified that for rural, remote, and oftentimes impoverished communities, it is not feasible for them to drive four hours round trip just to register to vote. Heart said other secure transactions, such as banking, are regularly performed online, and that voter registration would provide residents with greater access.
Other testifiers said online voter registration would increase accessibility for people with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and young people, who proponents said are all disproportionately affected by the current law.
Bolin, however, said the current voter registration system works well. He said he looked up the maximum distance one would have to drive to get to a county courthouse: 120-130 miles. If a person is traveling at 75 mph, it would take about four hours’ round trip simply to register to vote — the same drive that Heart was advocating against people needing to take to engage in their constitutional right to vote.
“I believe there are substantial questions that remain in regards to the initial registration process...I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that we have fair elections in South Dakota...We haven’t had any questions of voter fraud or those types of things under our current system. I would encourage further discussion on this issue if that would be the desire of this committee,” Bolin said.
The amendment passed with a majority voting “yes,” and the bill itself passed onto the Senate floor as amended. Heinert was the lone dissenting vote for the bill passing to the full Senate.
“I am disappointed in this committee,” Heinert said, noting that this bill has come up two years in a row. “Everybody testified it would make life easier for them...we had zero opposition. [Current voter registration laws] might be working for you, but we heard from plenty of people it’s not working for them.”