Evidently the gated community of “Wynstone“, nestled beside the Missouri River and the Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve just west of North Sioux City wants to put up some figurative fencing and break away from Jefferson Township. The snooty secessionists and the Union County Commission disagree on the petition process for such separatism. The Wynstoners read SDCL 8-1-8 and conclude that they can call a vote on splitting the township by collecting the signatures of a majority of registered voters residing in the tax haven they seek to carve out of Jefferson Township. But at a February 9 commission meeting, the county auditor and the state’s attorney contended the petition to call a vote on splitting the township must have a number of signatures equal to a majority of residents in the entire township. The parties also disagree on the definition of residency status:
The second issue is registered voters who don’t necessarily reside in Jefferson Township. Of the 520 registered voters in the Wynstone area, Walker said at least 134 don’t reside there anymore and shouldn’t be counted toward the petitioning numbers [Beth Sherard-Fennel, “A New Township for Union County?” Southern Union County Leader-Courier & Dakota Dunes/North Sioux City Times, 2021.02.12].
On February 9, the commission directed state’s attorney Jerry Miller to ask his little buddy the Attorney General for an official opinion. I don’t know what the delay was, but Attorney General replied on September 15 with a pretty straightforward recitation of statute.
First, the Wynstoners are right that they need to collect signatures from a majority of Wynstone residents, not a majority of residents throughout the township. SDCL 8-1-8 refers to a majority of registered voters “residing in the affected portions of the affected townships.” Where statute is clear, the Attorney General is clear:
Undoubtedly, writes the Attorney General, all of Jefferson Township will be affected by the proposed division. However, I conclude that use of ‘affected portions’ in the statutory text, in conjunction with “affected township,” limits the petition requirement to those registered voters residing in the affected portions of Jefferson Township that will be divided into Wynstone Township [Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, Official Opinion 21-02: “Potential Division of Jefferson Township in Union County,” 2021.09.15].
But on the question of voting residency, Ravnsborg remains as nebulous as South Dakota’s problematic voting-residency statute. He refers to the infamous Heinemeyer v. Heartland (2008) precedent but simply restates SDCL 12-1-4:
For the purposes of this title, the term, residence, means the place in which a person has fixed his or her habitation and to which the person, whenever absent, intends to return.
A person who has left home and gone into another state or territory or county of this state for a temporary purpose only has not changed his or her residence.
A person is considered to have gained a residence in any county or municipality of this state in which the person actually lives, if the person has no present intention of leaving.
If a person moves to another state, or to any of the other territories, with the intention of making it his or her permanent home, the person thereby loses residence in this state [SDCL 12-1-4, last amended 2004].
Ravnsborg doesn’t answer the county’s or the Wynstoners’ question about whether the 134 registered voters who live elsewhere should count toward the petition threshold or not; he just repeats the statutory demand that we determine whether those elsewherians “intend” to “return” to Wynstone at any point in the future. Currently, that clause about intent to return allows tax-dodging RVers to secure voting residency in South Dakota by renting a mailbox in Sioux Falls and sleeping at a South Dakota campground for a couple nights before resuming their peregrinations around the continent.
Hmm… so if the wealthy recluses of Jefferson township proceed with their secession petition, we may find them testing the statute that allows tens of thousands of people who don’t live in South Dakota to maintain voting residence in South Dakota. Wynstoners Torpedo Winnebagos? I can’t wait for that headline!