Bob Mercer noted earlier this week that the October 1 voter registration numbers from the Secretary of State's office show Independent registrations in South Dakota cracking 100,000 for the first time. Indies have increased their official numbers by 6.5% percent since the 2012 election, in a period when total voter registration has increased just 1.3%. Republicans are up 0.7%, Democrats are down 0.5% (come on, guys! momentum!), and Libertarians are up 13.2% (Ken! Call your pals and tell them they'd better register back to Republican to help Stace in June!).
But the biggest change that caught my eye was the drop in "inactive voters," folks who are still technically registered but haven't voted for four years and haven't responded to state efforts to verifying their status. Inactive voters are still registered. They can walk in on Election Day and vote; they just have to fill out a new voter registration card.
Last November, there were 53,132 names on the inactive roll. Now there are only 15,940.
The voter registration list shows previous purges of inactive voters, but none of this magnitude. 37,192 inactive voters disappearing? Aaah! Naturally, my Jason Gant-monkeyshines radar went off.
But not to worry: I called the Secretary's office in Pierre and had a nice conversation with senior elections coordinator Brandon Johnson. He explained that the 70% culling of the inactive rolls is nothing nefarious. It's mostly better bookkeeping.
Last year the Secretary of State's office got every county onto a new centralized voter tracking system (what? centralization? isn't that socialism, doomed to fail?). The old system was cutting off data, leaving Pierre blind to changes made and information entered at the local level. The new system let Pierre see all sorts of data that it couldn't before, data revealing thousands of names, mostly duplicates, that should have been purged from the inactive rolls years ago.
So the problem isn't this October's remarkably low figure in that Inactive column; it's the numbers we didn't realize were inflated in previous tallies based on gaps in data uploaded from the counties in the old system.
This data purge and the number in the Inactive column doesn't have a major impact on daily politics. Most candidacy, initiative, and referendum petition requirements are based on votes cast in the previous election, not total voter registration. Municipal initiative and referendum petitions are based on registered voter count, which means purging those duplicates and other erroneous entries from the rolls will actually help local groups seeking to put municipal measures to public votes.
Take, for example, the most prominent (and still pending!) municipal referendum, Save Our Neighborhood's effort to keep Walmart out of their south Sioux Falls neighborhoos by reversing a city zoning decision. On August 30, SON filed petitions at City Hall with 6,362 signatures. They needed 5,089 signatures, 5% of the official 101,783 registered voters, active and inactive, on the books in Sioux Falls when the petitions were filed. If the city had purged from its voter rolls a percentage of inactive voters similar to what Pierre did for the October 1 count, it would have dropped something like 3,000 voters from its registry, lowering the number of require petition signatures by around 150. Of course, if the counties had their data right in the first place, and the error was only happening in transferring that data to Pierre's records, then we wouldn't expect any harm done to local petitioneers.
(Interestingly, I check with the Minnehaha and Lincoln County auditors: since the SON petitions were submitted, registered voters in Sioux Falls have increased to 106,048, up 4.2%. Anyone walking a municipal petition around Sioux Falls today would need to gather 113 more signatures than SON did in August.)
So as far as I can tell, the big purge of inactive voters is just good bookkeeping, not Jason running more people he doesn't like through the Gantlet. Clearing duplicates and other errors from the inactive voter rolls gives us a better picture of who's out there to vote, and it may give local petition organizers a little break in achieving their goals.