House votes to change absentee ballot provision

House votes to change absentee ballot provision
The House of Representatives passed a bill Jan. 17 that could make absentee voting less complicated.

House Bill 1003 was sponsored by Secretary of State Chris Nelson. The bill combines the absentee ballot application with an envelope those voting absentee at a county auditor's office are currently required to fill out.

"We were looking for a way to streamline the process," Nelson said. "It was a real workload burden to our auditors." Prior to the 2004 general election state lawmakers removed a provision that required people to have a reason for voting absentee. During that election absentee voting increased from 12 to 24 percent.

Nelson said the change will also save time when counting ballots because election workers will only have to deal with the envelope. Those not voting at the auditor's office will still fill out a separate application and envelope.

The bill also deals with the authorized messenger provision. People who are sick or confined to their home by a disability can designate someone as their messenger. That person can then take them an absentee ballot and deliver it to the person in charge of the election.

Currently messengers are required to get a receipt from the person running the election. House Bill 1003 will make receipts required only when requested by the messenger.

Rep. Shawn Tornow, R-Sioux Falls, attempted to amend the bill to allow any qualified voter to use the messenger service on the day of the election.

Emergency medical personnel could be called on duty the day of the election and not be able to vote, Tornow said. They likely wouldn't know about that duty in enough time to fill out an absentee ballot. Many of the shifts for those medical personnel run 12 hours long and they may work 50 miles from the polling place, Tornow said.

"There are a handful of voters in every county that this would have a positive impact on," Tornow said.

Many voters in his district aren't interested in voting in advance.

"They want that patriotic experience of voting on election day," he said.

"We are just trying to make it easier for voters who on election day have a long way to travel to get to that poll," Rep. Tom Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, said.

Some voters may live 100 miles from the county courthouse, Van Norman said. It's difficult for those people to drive into town to get the absentee ballot application, drive home and then drive back again to deliver it to the auditor's office.

"Some messenger system would be an improvement," Van Norman said.

Other lawmakers disagreed.

"This has nothing to do with people who have to drive long distances," Rep. Mike Buckingham, R-Rapid City, said. "The absentee voting application is available. This is just an opportunity for folks at the very last minute to change their minds and ask someone else to get the ballot for them."

Buckingham argued that the amendment could threaten election legitimacy.

"We've worked very hard the last couple of years to prevent voter fraud," Buckingham said. "This is a step backward."

Rep. Tom Hennies, R-Rapid City, said the amendment did nothing for the bill.

"When you make legislation you can ?what if' it to death," he said. "That's what this is.What if someone on the way to the polls has a flat tire? Well, let's add that to the list. Somewhere along the line our local citizens need to take some responsibility for getting the job done."

Rep. Donald Van Etten, R-Rapid City, who is a retired surgeon, defended medical personnel called to emergencies.

"Not everyone summoned by an emergency call knows the day before," he said. "I would have to take care of that patient. This would be a very great asset to me."

Rep. Dale Hargens, D-Miller, also was in favor of the bill's amendment.

"I think it's important," he said. "If this helps two people exercise their right to vote that's enough for me."

The amendment ultimately failed. The House then passed the bill 70-0. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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