Last year, on March 23, Donald Trump signed into law a measure sending $3,000,000 in new Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding to South Dakota to help improve how we run our elections. With evidence abounding that Vladimir Putin and the Russians meddled in our last election, you’d think South Dakota would have been eager to spend that money to protect our 2018 ballots.
You’d have another think coming.
Spending that $3 million from Uncle Sam apparently required a 5% state, a measly $150,000 from our coffers. The Legislature met for Veto Day on March 26, 2018. For something as important as election integrity, legislators could easily have whipped up an emergency bill and passed it that day to allow the Secretary of State to put that federal money to good use on new voting machines and cybersecurity.
But no such fiscal or electoral ambition arose. South Dakota prefers to sit on its HAVA money and earn interest. We let the 2018 election roll by without spending a penny of that new appropriation to fight the new threat to democracy from Trump’s friend Russia, choosing instead to “earn” $30,649 in interest by September 30. The Legislature only just authorized the $150K match this year in Senate Bill 180, which will finally put that money in motion come June 28.
As Bob Mercer points out, South Dakota has been remarkably slow in spending HAVA money since the law first sent money to the states to improve elections in 2002:
As of the September 30 end of the 2018 federal budget year, South Dakota still had 37 percent of its 2002 HAVA grant and interest earned on it available, according to a federal Election Assistance Commission report released April 4.
South Dakota’s percentage was fourth-highest in the nation, behind Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Tennessee.
Among South Dakota’s neighboring states, Wyoming was at 7 percent while Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota were at zero, according to the report [Bob Mercer, “Secretary of State Office Received Another $3 Million to Beef Up South Dakota Election Security,” KELO-TV, 2019.04.08].
Why wouldn’t we spend federal money to improve elections? Our exceptional foot-dragging comes in part from county auditors like Buffalo County’s former auditor Elaine Wulff, who resisted spending HAVA money on an early voting center in Fort Thompson in the 2014 election… perhaps because she was afraid that if folks in Fort Thompson had more access to the ballot, they might vote one of their own residents into office.
According to the EAC report, South Dakota has over $12 million in federal HAVA grants sitting around waiting to be spent on better election procedures. I don’t know if voter registration drives are among the activities on which HAVA funds can be spent, but if we can make the argument that we can improve the accuracy and fairness of voting in America by signing more people up to vote, we could deploy 660 election workers, ten per county, to spend two full work days (how about a Friday and a Saturday?) going door to door (with a targeted list) and working big events to register new voters. Pay ’em $20 an hour, give each worker $50 in gas money, and we spend a mere $244,200 to put (four new registrants per hour per worker) 42,240 new voters on the rolls.
Instead of building up interest in the bank, that HAVA money could do much more good building up interest among the voters, getting more of them to the polls, and making sure their votes aren’t derailed by the Russians.