In my post on Chad Haber's violation of campaign finance laws yesterday, I mentioned Bob Mercer's notice that former Secretary of State Jason Gant appears to have been slacking off toward the end of his administration. My commenters are sharing similar observations on Gant's underperformance, which fit with the history of his troubled single term in office.

For what it's worth, the gal who helped show Gant the door, our new Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, appears to determined to work better, stronger, and faster. For today's tiny hopeful anecdote about good public service, I note that Secretary Krebs responded to one of my inquiries with an e-mail last night at 23:24 CST. I rolled out of bed and replied this morning. Secretary Krebs pinged me back at 05:50 CST.

That timeframe means that, at best, Secretary Krebs got six hours and twenty-five minutes of sleep last night, and that public service was the last thing on her mind when she sacked out and the first thing on her mind when she jumped out of bed for another glorious day in the Capitol.

We'll see how things go when we get to our first petition cycle. But for the moment, the Secretary of State's office seems to be in better hands than it was for the last four years.

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Libertarian blogger Ken Santema finds a new glitch in the petition reforms proposed by the state Board of Elections. He says Senate Bill 69, which moves the primary petition circulation period up one month to December 1 to the last Tuesday in February, violates the constitution by also setting the deadline for filing petitions to form a new party on that last Tuesday in February.

For details, Santema turns to Richard Winger at Ballot Access News:

These state officials probably don’t remember that in 1984, South Dakota’s Attorney General and Secretary of State admitted that a February petition deadline for a newly-qualifying party is unconstitutional, and the legislature then moved that deadline to April. This admission was made after the South Dakota Libertarian Party sued the Secretary of State. That case is reported at 579 F Supp 735 (1984). However, the only decision the judge had to make in that case was that the wording on the party petition was unconstitutionally restrictive. The judge didn’t need to adjudicate the part of the case that challenged the February deadline, because the state admitted it was too early [Richard Winger, "South Dakota Bill Moves Deadline for Newly-Qualifying Party Petition from March to February," Ballot Access News, 2015.01.20].

We bumped that deadline back from last Tuesday in April to last Tuesday in March in 2007.

Whether case law actually prohibits the earlier February deadline for party-formation petitions, Senate Bill 69 and the other bills in the petition reform package do citizens' opportunity to get themselves and their parties on the ballot. Mr. Santema says that disadvantage is enough to sink the whole reform package in his book:

I still have more research to do on this topic. But right now it appears the burden placed on ballot access in SB 69 overwhelms any good intentions of the bill. Yes, the nominating petition procedures in South Dakota need to be overhauled. However at this time it appears the wrong path is being taken. As a short-term fix maybe amending the bill to remove the new restrictions on newly-qualifying parties would be appropriate. But it might be time to realize that true reform may not be possible during the 2015 legislative session. Instead perhaps a workgroup or summer study should be formed to take a deep look at election law in SD and in other states for a comparison. Then come to the 2016 legislature with a comprehensive solution that would fix the problems experienced in the 2014 election while concurrently ensuring the first and fourteenth amendment protections are properly observed [Ken Santema, "Ballot Access Issues with SB 69," SoDakLiberty, 2015.01.20].

If we need petition reform, perhaps this question of ballot access makes my five amendments, including moving the deadline to the first Tuesday of March, all the more essential to passing the current package of legislation. We can't move the petition deadline back to April, since federal law demands we have absentee ballots ready for military voters 45 days before the primary. We could adopt the Lanny Stricherz plan to move the primary into summer so we could circulate petitions in May.

But if we can't move dates, then the best we may be able to do is make petitions electronic (complete with official circulators' tablet apps and online signatures!) so that we can submit petitions the day before ballot printing and instantly check signatures against the voter registration database. (Given that Secretary Krebs pulled out the wires on the campaign finance reporting system this morning, now might not be the time to suggest a whole new electronic form submission system... but I'm willing to take my chances! iPetitions, Secretary Krebs! What do you say?)

The Senate Local Government Committee hears Senate Bill 68 tomorrow, Wednesday, at 7:45 a.m. Central. Senate State Affairs takes up the rest of the petition reform package, SB 67 and the troubling SB 69 shortly afterwards, at 10:00 a.m.

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Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and the Board of Elections have sent the South Dakota Legislature three bills to reform the candidate petition review process. The three bills work as a package and must all be passed together to work.

Senate Bill 67 establishes the second Tuesday in March as the deadline for filing any challenge to a nominating petition for a primary election in circuit court. SB 67 fast-tracks any such challenge in circuit court. It then requires anyone challenging a circuit court ruling on a challenge to file their appeal with the Supreme Court within ten days of the lower court's order.

Senate Bill 68 requires the Secretary of State to review every nominating petition for a statewide candidate by reviewing five percent of the submitted signatures by random sample, similar to the process the Secretary of State currently carries out for every ballot measure petition. SB 68 requires the Secretary of State to notify candidates of the results of the review within five days of completing the review.

Senate Bill 69 is the messy one. This bill moves the petitioning dates for primary elections back one month, from January 1 through the last Tuesday in March to December 1 through the last Tuesday in February. Independent candidates also get to start circulating on December 1, but they keep their filing deadline of the last Tuesday in April. New political parties must also submit their petitions for recognition one month earlier, on that last Tuesday in February instead of the current last Tuesday in March.

In addition, Senate Bill 69 eliminates the late-arrival exception for petitions sent by registered mail and postmarked by the petition deadline; under this bill, all petitions must be in the Secretary's hands by the deadline. SB 69 moves the deadline for nominating petitions in special Congressional elections up from 45 days to 65 days before the special election. SB 67 addresses the Myers-Hubbel-Collier conundrum and explicitly allows an independent candidate for lieutenant governor to withdraw and be replaced.

I appreciate the Election Board's effort to require the Secretary of State to do her job better than her predecessor in protecting the integrity of the ballot from fraudulent petitioneers. However, this tripartite reform is focused entirely on operations at the top and does nothing to help the grassroots participate in elections and the petition process.

First, let's deal with the petition review and challenge process. These reforms do nothing to make petitions more accessible to citizens who want to review nominating petitions. When I led a group that challenged fake U.S. Senate candidate Annette Bosworth's nominating petition, the Secretary of State's office charged $2 per page, which brought the cost of obtaining Bosworth's petition to $452. Effectively reviewing petitions requires matching signatures with the statewide voter registration file, for which the Secretary of State's office charges $2,500. Grassroots reform would take steps to make petitions and the voter registration file more easily available to citizens. Nominating petitions should be posted online for all interested and connected citizens to review. The Secretary of State should reduce the cost of the voter registration file or, as a compromise, modify the Voter Information Portal so that grassroots petition reviewers can look up individual voter registration records by entering the voter's address (information that petitions require) instead of the voter's birthdate (information that petitions do not and should not require).

Furthermore, while these bills give the Secretary of State more time to review petitions, the bills seem oblivious to the practical impact of the changes on the timeframe for citizen action.

Let's look at these reforms in the context of the challenges to the Bosworth petition last year. Bosworth submitted her petition at the last minute on March 25. My team had to submit its challenge to the Bosworth petition to the Secretary of State by April 1. Under these reforms, we'd have had the same week. As rational actors in the political marketplace, knowing the Secretary of State was carrying out the random-sample review required by SB 68, we might have wanted to save our money and see if the Secretary would do our work for us. But we could not wait and see, because our five-day clock would still start ticking when the petitions were submitted, not when the Secretary certified them. Citizens are caught in a bind, having to commit to an expensive challenge process that may turn out to be redundant if the Secretary's random sample finds the same errors the thorough citizen review would find.

Plus, consider that for me to challenge the Bosworth petition under the SB 69 calendar, I'd have been reviewing petitions during the last days of February and the first days of March, the height of the Legislative session. I'd have had to drop my coverage of bills in Pierre and focus on the petition challenge. I can imagine that other political activists (and candidates?) would find this overlap as burdensome as I would.

Rep. Steve Hickey's court challenge to Bosworth's petition would fare no better. Rep. Hickey's challenge last year died because there was not time between the Secretary's rejection of my challenge on April 5 and the ballot-printing and delivery due date of April 16 for the court to hear the challenge. Under SB 69, Rep. Hickey would have had all of March and early April to file his court challenge. Hickey could have spent March gathering evidence and legal advice. He could have filed suit on April 1. Judge Mark Barnett could have scheduled a hearing for April 7, expedited a ruling, and the Secretary of State would have had plenty of time to finalize the ballot by April 16.

But Senate Bill 67 inexplicably shuts the door on that opportunity for oversight. The second Tuesday in March gives future court challenges no more time to launch than Rep. Hickey had last year.

As a minor complaint, Senate Bill 69 chips away at the time citizens have to get on the ballot. Moving the circulation period up one month reduces the time candidates have to circulate. February is two or three days shorter than March; in 2016, SB 69 would take away one full week of circulation time. Circulating petitions during Christmas shopping sounds like a bad idea, as people are too absorbed in their hectic shopping to pay as much attention to clipboard-carrying circulators. Circulating petitions during the Christmas break seems downright tacky. SB 69 adds a really crappy month for petitioning by taking away March, a month that offers more daylight and more chance of springtime weather for marching door to door and catching folks on the sidewalk at the post office.

Senate Bills 67, 68, and 69 try to address weaknesses in the petition review process. However, they ignore the role of citizens in the process and close more doors than they open. To make this reform work, let's make five key changes:

  1. In SB 67, change the court challenge deadline to April 1 or drop the deadline altogether, allowing the ballot-printing deadline to continue setting the effective deadline.
  2. In SB 67, count the five-business-day deadline for submitting challenges to the Secretary from the day the Secretary certifies a petition.
  3. In SB 68, add a requirement that the Secretary post online all petitions and itemized reports on the results of each random-sample verification (i.e., show which signatures were checked and which, if any, were found invalid).
  4. In SB 68, include a provision requiring the Secretary to make voter registration records searchable online by name and address.
  5. In SB 69, move the petition submission deadline to the first Tuesday in March.
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When incoming Secretary of State Shantel Krebs announced she was hiring Brown County GOP chairman Jason Williams to serve as her public information officer, I wondered if she was expanding government to make room for what looked like a little partisan patronage.

Secretary Krebs tells this blog there's no government expansion going on under her watch. Secretary Krebs says that, while she is still bound by law to operate under her predecessor Jason Gant's budget until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, she's already making the office run leaner. Gant's budget included 15.6 full-time equivalents (FTEs). Right now, Secretary Krebs is holding down the fort with 13.5 FTEs. That's not just a temporary lag in bringing new people on board; Secretary Krebs says that's plenty. The Secretary's office has not prepared a budget proposal yet (they have petition reform legislation to write up for tomorrow's pre-filing deadline—stay tuned for a post on that topic over the weekend!), but Secretary Krebs says that instead of continuing the 15.6 FTE allocation found in Governor Daugaard's FY 2016 proposal, she may knock another half FTE off her current staff and budget 13.0 FTE.

Multiple Krebs staff members are thus picking up duties that were spread among others in the Gant office. Secretary Krebs says PIO Williams is no exception. In addition to getting the word out about SOS activities to the public, Williams will handle special projects, like Secretary Krebs's initiative to increase voter turnout. Secretary Krebs says Williams is already studying turnout data, breaking it down by age group, and thinking about which voters to target and how. Expect PIO Williams to be getting out to schools, talking with voters, and looking for answers to our dwindling turnout.

In addition, Williams will track legislation for the Secretary of State's office. He'll be following the progress of the reforms proposed by the Board of Elections. He'll also keep an eye out for new bills from legislators and researching their impact on the office. He'll report on those bills to the boss, the Secretary herself, who will then speak to legislators in committee and in the lobby, as necessary, to protect the interests of fair elections and other functions of the Secretary of State.

Secretary Krebs says Williams and the rest of her staff are putting in overtime and delivering "exceptional" customer service. The Secretary herself seems to be setting the pace. Consider that, in response to a media inquiry from this blog, the Secretary herself texted me at 6:25 a.m. today. She had meetings all day, but she arranged to visit with me on the phone at 6:30 p.m. She said she had 10 minutes; she gave me 19.

I did not keep track of the multiple times I left messages for Secretary Gant and never heard back from him. But so far, Secretary Krebs is batting 1.000 on fielding media requests from the Madville Times. Perhaps the state's chief election officer has bigger fish to fry than speaking to some blogger, but I find my first interaction with the new election chief... satisfactory.

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Jason Gant is sleeping in today... which may not be different from most of the last four years when he had to drive to Pierre to be Secretary of State. Working the impression out of his office chair is Shantel Krebs, South Dakota's new chief of elections, keeper of seals, and only female besides Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen* in a statewide elected office in the Capitol.

Job 1: fix the branding! Team Krebs is already hard at work scrubbing her predecessor's name and replacing it with hers:

Top of SDSOS.gov, 2015.01.02, 08:30 CST

Top of SDSOS.gov, 2015.01.02, 08:30 CST

Hmm, better work on that style sheet a bit. That thin white font floating inconspicuously in the corner seems entirely unlike the dynamic Secretary Krebs we all expect to make a deep impression on the office.

Team Krebs has launched the new @SOSKrebs Twitter account:

Screen cap from midpage, SDSOS.gov, 08:44 CST

Screen cap from midpage, SDSOS.gov, 08:44 CST

New PIO Jason Williams must not be in the office yet. Hop to it, Jason!

Secretary Krebs does have her smiling face up on the SOS homepage, with an image so big I have to switch to full-screen view to take it all in:

Screen cap from bottom of homepage, SDSOS.gov, 08:46 CST

Screen cap from bottom of homepage, SDSOS.gov, 08:46 CST

That image file is 361 KB, and it's on the template for every page. Holy cow, Team Krebs! Free up some bandwidth! Move that image to the top and shrink:

Modified SDSOS.gov banner

Modified SDSOS.gov banner

And if you can get Secretary Krebs to jump 3-D over my browser tab, that would be really cool. Carry on, SOS Web team! (And remember: don't call Pat for Web advice!)

Update 09:03 CST: We can spend the day watching the SOS website evolve before our eyes. Team Krebs has already changed some of the subsections to reflect my suggested change, shrinking that splendiferous image file and copying it to the banner:

SDSOS.gov banner, screen cap, 2014.01.02.09:03 CST

SDSOS.gov banner, screen cap, 2014.01.02.09:03 CST

I think that's now three distinct fonts in the banner—Bill Fleming may have issues. And as expected, Krebs's name didn't stay that small ghostly floater in the corner; it's now all caps, in gold, and a couple pixels larger than the name of the office. That's the SHANTEL KREBS we expect to own the room!

Correction 10:09 CST: In my original post, I forgot PUC Fiegen! Shameful! With Keystone XL bubbling, it is inexcusable that I forget one of the three state officials who can save us from the great black snake from the north. Commissioner Fiegen, I apologize for my oversight.

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Shantel Krebs may not be an awful Secretary of State, although Jason Gant has lowered the bar so far that we'd probably cheer a trained chinchilla. She's hiring experienced professionals, not political cronies, to help her run elections. She's signaled her intent to seek more authority for the Secretary of State to do her job and review petitions for illegal signatures.

But it remains to be seen whether Krebs will be able to overcome the partisan motives that drove her candidacy and enforce election law fairly. Former Secretaries of State Sam Reed of Washington and Phil Keisling of Oregon say there has been an explosion of partisan fundraising in secretary of state races:

In the 2014 election cycle, two dozen secretary of state offices were in play, and most of these positions included the duties of chief elections officer. As detailed by Politico, the 2014 election cycle also saw the rise of well financed national political action committees, on both the right and the left, focusing on offices once predominately viewed as sleepy administrative backwaters [Phil Keisling and Sam Reed, "The Troubling Partisanization of Elections for Secretary of State," Governing, 2014.12.10].

This increased partisan attention to secretary of state races makes it harder for our election officials to play umpire:

We're certainly not saying we made every call correctly. But we each felt a certain freedom to call it as we saw it without anywhere near the worry that today's chief elections officers will have about the millions of dollars they'll need for their own re-election campaigns. In the end, we'd argue that voters in every state should want exactly these kind of independent judgments from their chief elections officials.

Our nation's secretaries of state certainly can't escape the hurly-burly of politics altogether; with over 20 years of elected statewide office between us, we're not naïve about that. But election administration is a core function in our democracy, and voters rightfully require accountability for the integrity and smooth operation of our voting process [Keisling and Reed, 2014.12.10].

Krebs's campaign does not epitomize the big-money problem over which Keisling and Reed rightly worry. Out-state PACs constituted a single-digit percentage of Krebs's relatively modest campaign kitty. Krebs didn't need the help: she may have spent barely $100K on a statewide race against late-comer opponent Angelia Schultz, who spent little more than $5K.

I'm also not sure how we would de-partisanize the Secretary of State's race. We could amend statute to make that campaign non-partisan like judges' races, but Republicans and Democrats who recognize the value of that office would still find a way to place their preferred candidates on the ballot and fund their campaigns.

It seems the best way to ensure Krebs's fair and faithful exercise of her duties is to subject her office to public pressure and scrutiny. Let's make sure her professional staff live up to their reputations. Let's press Secretary Krebs to protect voting rights for all South Dakotans and review petitions avidly and equitably. We have high expectations, Secretary-Elect Krebs. Leave your partisan hat at the door, and let's run elections right.

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Secretary of State Jason Gant has gotten three full days of attention in South Dakota's largest newspaper for putting into effect a first-in-the-nation technological advancement that will help overseas military personnel more easily register to vote and secure absentee ballots. Plus, the Dakota Republican Press Release Online Depository gives its typical blippy treatment to the old boss' new accomplishment.

And it appears that Jason Gant and his staff do indeed deserve kudos for taking a year and a $680,000 Federal Voting Assistance Program grant to create a system that allows service members to take a digital photo of their military ID card and use that image to register to vote or to create a ballot online that can then be printed and submitted just like any other absentee ballot. The program is a good idea, even if its acronym-like moniker, iOASIS, isn't any kind of actual abbreviation for its full name, Innovative Overseas Absentee-Balloting System.

Gant is right (there's a surprising series of words, particularly for this blog) to express self-satisfaction when he says:

I am proud to play a part in correcting the injustice that servicemen and women experience in their ballots not being counted. They deserve the same opportunity that everyone else has. They risk their lives defending our right to vote. We need to defend theirs [Jason Gant, "South Dakota Secretary of State Secures Technology to Improve Military Voting," Press Release, 2013.12.02

But let's not allow one parting gift from the self-imposed (self-deposed?) lame duck Secretary of State overshadow the fact that Jason Gant has a long history of disenfranchisement, incompetence, hyper-partisanship, and questionable ethics as South Dakota's chief elections officer. Though it may be tempting to combine our "South Dakota nice" and this stars-and-stripes accomplishment to gloss over that history, it should remain crystal clear: Jason Gant has been a bad Secretary of State whom even his fellow Republicans are glad to see make history as South Dakota's only first-term Secretary of State to not seek re-election.

The August 11 editorial in the same paper that's now all over the military voting upgrade provides a more succinct reminder of Gant's failures than I can politely manage:

[Gant's] latest blunder—in effect denying an extension of voters' rights in the reservation communities of Wanblee, Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson—continues a pattern of conduct that has damaged the reputation of the office to which voters elected him overwhelmingly.

...

Let the record show that Gant, in his short time in office, has:

— Hired noted political operator and ultra-conservative blogger Pat Powers, allowing him to continue to run his consulting business. Powers, finally, was forced to resign—but not because Gant acknowledged anything wrong with the practice.

— Endorsed Rep. Val Rausch in a primary election for a Senate seat and then claimed to see nothing wrong with such actions. Previous secretaries of state were widely known for bringing a neutral approach to that important constitutional office.

— Instituted a flawed process of campaign finance reporting that favored some candidates over others, slowed the system for public disclosure and hindered the public's ability to examine the influence of special interests in local races.

— Applied election laws unequally to Democrats and Republicans, favoring the latter and even, in one case, allowing one GOP legislative candidate—Brian Gosch of Rapid City—to notarize his own petitions [editorial, "Gant Trashes Trust Placed by Voters," That Sioux Falls Paper, 2013.08.11]

Weigh the iOASIS program—and even the other accomplishments Gant cited when he announced his decision not to seek re-election—against that list, and there's no way to conclude that a few tech-savvy good deeds balance out a tenure full of fundamental misdeeds.

Maybe I shouldn't imply that the mainstream media are giving too much attention to the military voting story. After all, when it comes to Jason Gant, being able to write the headline "Secretary of State Does Good Job" really is a big news event.

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