Nelson: S.D. facing challenge of new election laws

Nelson: S.D. facing challenge of new election laws Secretary of State Chris Nelson told the Vermillion Rotary Club Tuesday that, despite changes in the voting process because of new laws, the June special election went smoothly. Some problems did surface, he added, and the state is making a concerted effort to correct them before the November election. by David Lias The problems experienced in Florida during the 2000 presidential election have prompted a number of changes at polling places in South Dakota, according to Secretary of State Chris Nelson.

"The most significant change we've got going on is the inception of a voter identification requirement at the polling place," Nelson told the Vermillion Rotary Club at its noon luncheon Tuesday. "That requirement didn't necessarily come so much because of Florida, but simply because our Legislature said it wanted to add that measure of integrity to our election system."

Appropriate types of identification, Nelson said, are a South Dakota driver's license or nondriver identification card, a passport or identification card issued by a government agency, a tribal identification card including a picture, and identification cards, with photos, issued by accredited institutions of higher learning.

"That was a new requirement for South Dakota, and I was curious about how this was going to go over," he said. "Frankly, I was amazed. We had 98 percent of the people who showed up at the polling place with the ID that was required."

Voters who didn't bring identification to the polls had the option to sign a personal identification affidavit.

"You may have seen a little bit of media following the June election that some people were claiming they didn't know about that affidavit option, or they weren't offered it," Nelson said. "We know there are a few places where that did happen � where the election workers simply overlooked that step, and were so intent on the identification portion that they missed handing out the affidavit.

"That's one of the challenges that we're working on for November, to make sure that everyone of the 4,000 election workers across the state thoroughly understands the identification law and applies it properly."

Another change in state election deals with absentee voting. In the past, citizens had to state a reason for wanting to cast absentee ballots.

"Our Legislature thought that was no longer necessary, so they took that out of the law,"

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Nelson said. "Prior to this, a lot of people simply had to make up excuses for obtaining absentee ballots, and that was ridiculous. Now, if you choose to vote that way, you can."

This change has only been tested in one election. So far, it hasn't shown to increase the number of state voters casting absentee ballots.

"In the June election, about 11.5 percent of the ballots that were cast in South Dakota were cast by absentee voters," Nelson said. "That's about the same percentage that cast absentee in the last general election, so we didn't see a wild use of absentee voting, but on the same token, I suspect that the use of that will grow over time for those people who feel comfortable voting by that particular method."

South Dakota made history last June when it held a special election to allow voters to elect a replacement for Bill Janklow, who resigned his U.S. House seat in January after being convicted of manslaughter.

"We hadn't done one of those (special elections) since the 1800s," Nelson said. "We were able to get a new Congressperson elected; she has taken office and she is serving."

Nelson said he still meets people who think South Dakota won't have to worry about another House race for a couple years.

"In case anyone has been mislead, we will elect a Congressperson again in November," he said. "What we did in June was simply to finish out this year. In November, we elect a Congressperson to serve for the next two-year term."

The previous record turnout for a June election in South Dakota was 49 percent.

"This June, we hit 56.7 percent," Nelson said. "The people of South Dakota took this election seriously, they came out and voted, and I think that is commendable."

After the problems experienced in Florida following the 2000 general election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act.

"That act requires states to make a number of changes in their election process," Nelson said. "Voter instructions, making sure that every voter can understand how to vote a ballot, is one of the focuses of that act."

South Dakota has implemented more specific wording on its ballots, and in instruction sheets posted on the walls of polling places.

"We're now providing voters with a lot more information so that everybody can cast their ballots and have their votes counted in the way they intended them to."

State law allows people whose names don't show up on election rolls to cast a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots aren't counted the night of the election � they may be counted the following day if the person in charge of the election determines that the voters casting provisional ballots were properly registered.

"I see provisional ballots as perhaps being the next battleground in close elections," Nelson said.

Two years ago, Sen. Tim Johnson defeated challenger John Thune by approximately 500 votes.

"What do you think would have happened if we had 800 or 900 of these provisional ballots scattered around South Dakota that night?" Nelson said.

The result would have been a greater sense of uncertainty about the final outcome of the election, he said.

"If we have a close race like that with a number of provisional ballots, the county auditor office in every county of the state is going to be a battleground the next day," he said. "You are going to have Democratic lawyers, you're going to have Republican lawyers, you're going to have state's attorneys in there trying to help their auditors, trying to figure out if the provisional ballots are countable or not."

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