South Dakota’s electoral process works pretty well. Our county auditors, who do the bulk of the ballot-preparing and the vote-counting, are a strong group. Many have decades of experience and I haven’t run across one that I wouldn’t trust with the code to my garage door. In short — diligent, honest folks run our elections and South Dakotans can have faith in them.
We can do better, though. This spring and summer saw dozens of elections on assorted dates throughout the calendar. In April, Fort Pierre held a municipal election. About a month later, I read about a school board election in Sioux Falls. On June 1, Harrisburg held a bond election. A couple weeks ago, Pierre held a municipal and school board election and Rapid City held a school board election.
I subscribe to and read newspapers from Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Pierre. I read blogs about government and follow most South Dakota media on Twitter. It’s fair to say I’m more interested than most in the workings of governments in our state. Even with that information, I had a hard time remembering when all these elections were taking place, let alone when the early voting window may have started.
The difficulty I experienced is borne out in voter turnout. South Dakotans are simply not showing up for these random-date elections. Fort Pierre turned out less than 25% of voters for the April election, despite a 79.25% turnout in the 2020 general election. In May, a mere 5% of Sioux Falls voters cast a ballot compared to almost 75% six months prior. On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Harrisburg turned out 4.5% of the voters for its bond election, woefully short of the 79.5% that voted in November. Pierre and Rapid City showed the same trend, with 27% and 9.9% turnout, compared to 75.24% and 71.79%, respectively.
I know there are some good reasons why cities and school districts hold elections more frequently than every two years: some have odd-year terms, bonds elections have important timing considerations, and it can be complicated to administer four or five different types of elections all at once.
I’m not disputing these reasons, but our state policy puts all complications on the voter. We’ve made it difficult for South Dakotans to participate by holding elections on sporadic dates. A 5% turnout is unacceptable when we know 70% of the same set of voters turned out in November.
We can do better. These elections should be held consistently and on high-profile election days so that the public has as much notice as possible. I look forward to working with cities, school districts, county auditors, the Secretary of State, and my colleagues on a practical plan to make these elections healthier.