One of two bills seeking to ban absentee ballot drop boxes passed its first committee vote yesterday.
House Bill 1165 tucks its drop box ban at the bottom of an otherwise debatably harmless bill revising absentee voting provisions. Prime sponsor Representative Kirk Chaffee (R-29/Whitewood) replaces a lot of shalls with musts, gender-neutralizes an offending masculine pronoun (ah, the Republicans are so woke this Session), and updates some references to federal law.
In substantive changes, HB 1165 formally prohibits mailing absentee ballots out after the Monday right before the election (Chaffee originally proposed a mail deadline of Thursday before the election, but House State Affairs eased that deadline ahead). HB 1165 specifies that certain violations of absentee voting laws can draw Class 2 misdemeanor charges (30 days in jail, $500 fine max).
HB 1165 expands the grounds on which county auditors and election boards may review and reject absentee ballots from proof that the voter has died to include proof that the voter has been convicted of a felony or declared mentally incompetent. Chaffee also wanted to allow auditors and election boards to boot absentee ballots from voters who have registered in other states, but House State Affairs struck that provision. Perhaps the committee got word that the RV voter lobby was uneasy about that potential intrusion on their encampment in South Dakota’s voter and vehicle registration rolls.
HB 1165 actually provides a little honest help for election integrity by tightening up the rules for folks watching the count of absentee ballots. Current law (SDCL 12-19-44) says, “The room occupied by the absentee ballot counting board shall be open to any person for the purpose of observing the counting process.” “Any person” means any person, and any number of persons. HB 1165 Section 16 specifies that the sorting, validating, and counting of absentee ballots “must be open to poll watchers”. “Poll watchers” are not any old person but recognized creatures of statute. The State Board of Elections limits the number of poll watchers—one per candidate, one per national convention delegate slate, and one per side of each ballot question in primaries; one per party, one per independent candidate, one per slate of Presidential electors, and one per side of each ballot question in generals. HB 1165 specifies that poll watchers “shall keep” (shall? after taking such pains to replace all those existing shalls with musts, Chaffee deploys a new shall? Come on, Kirk, tighten up!) “a reasonable distance from ballots and identification information to protect the privacy of absentee voters.” And for any nefarious poll watchers who think they’ll just sneak some pictures of absentee ballot names and addresses with their phone zoom lenses, Section 16 prohibits creating any “record associating an individual voter with a ballot”. So yay for a Republican finding an honest way to protect voter privacy without making it harder to cast a vote.
HB 1165 does crack down on get-out-the-vote activists, Sections 18 and 19 boost the penalty for paying people to assist voters by the number of voters assisted from a Class 2 to a Class 1 misdemeanor (one year in jail, $2,000 fine max). Section 20 prohibits anyone other than the person in charge of the election or that chief’s appointed designee from prefilling voters’ names and addresses on absentee ballot applications. The person requesting the ballot has to fill in that information, unless that person is blind, disabled, or unable to read or write.
Chaffee waits until Section 21, the penultimate section of HB 1165, to ban drop boxes. Instead of allowing county auditors to establish secure and convenient locations around town and outdoors where voters concerned about catching coronavirus or being late for work may submit their ballots, HB 1165 says the only ways absentee voters may submit their ballots are by delivering their ballots in person to the office of the election chief, giving their ballots to an authorized ballot messenger to deliver in person, or mailing their ballots.
Wait: Rep. Chaffee thinks a ballot drop box established by our own county auditor isn’t secure but a plastic mail box in front of a house is? There is no evidence that the ballot drop boxes used in the 2020 election were insecure or fostered voter fraud. All that makes a mail box more secure than a ballot drop box is federal law that can put mail thieves in prison for up to five years. Rather than banning absentee drop boxes and thus making it harder for people to vote, why not simply copy federal law and subject people who try to steal absentee ballots from drop boxes to the same penalty? Under SDCL 12-26-23, stealing ballots in South Dakota is only a Class 6 felony, drawing a maximum of two years in prison and a $4,000 fine.
Rep. Chaffee has mixed some reasonable changes with the ballot dropbox paranoia of his party. The harder right whackadoodles of his caucus have filed a shorter, more purely rotten bill focused on making absentee voting harder. Chaffee’s neighbor just across the Meade/Lawrence county line, Representative Scott Odenbach (R-31/Spearfish) has proposed House Bill 1217, which does three bad things:
- HB 1217 bans absentee ballot drop boxes, similarly to HB 1165.
- HB 1217 shortens the absentee voting period for everyone in state from 46 days to 30 days. Overseas voters would still get 46 days, as required by federal law.
- HB 1217 ends no-excuse early voting. South Dakota currently is one of 27 states where voters need not give a reason to vote early or absentee. Another eight states now just mail ballots to everyone. HB 1217 would only allow voters to cast an absentee ballot if they will be outside of their home county on election day, if they are disabled or sick, if they are observing a religious holiday, if they are in resident attendance at a school, if their work prevents them from getting to the polls, if they are absent due to military service, or if they live overseas.
Odenbach’s HB 1217 is a far more egregious attack than HB 1165 on all South Dakotans’ ability to participate in elections. But both bills express the typical apartheidist Republican desire to make it harder to vote, reduce the number of people voting, and undermine faith in democracy as Republicans try to cling to power even as their party base slides further into self-accelerated minority. (Remember: lower voter participation does not automatically produce more Republican election wins, but it does produce a more disengaged electorate that delegitimizes government and makes it easier to sow distrust of elections and support for non-democratic efforts to seize power.)
HB 1165 passed House State Affairs Friday on a partisan 11-2 vote. HB 1217 awaits a hearing before House State Affairs.