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RV “Residents” Skew Madison Voter Turnout, Could Skew Elections

There are 1123 people in Madison who are not in Madison. Roll with me on this local illusion.

During last week's school board election, I noticed an odd bump in the voter registration numbers:

  1. Ward 1, northeast Madison: 3211 registered voters
  2. Ward 2, northwest Madison: 1210 registered voters
  3. Ward 3, south Madison: 1172 registered voters

Now a look at the ward map (graciously provided online by our new county auditor Bobbi Janke) shows that Ward 1 actually reaches across the north side of town to include everybody north of 9th Street. That grabs Cedar Court, the trailer park, and the Williams Addition. Ward 1 also includes the Dakota State University campus, which might throw a few more registered voters into the pot. But 2000 more voters, 165% more than Ward 2?

Then my conversation with the gentleman from Wilmot got me thinking. Ward 1 also includes 110 East Center Street, the location of Dakota International Services, LLC, which offers, a mailbox service for recreational vehicle owners and others who travel the country with no real permanent home.

I checked at the courthouse. According to the South Dakota voter registration records, as of yesterday, the number of registered voters listing 110 East Center Street, Madison, SD as their voting address is 1123.

Map of voter registration by ward in Madison, South Dakota, including registration at, RV mail-forwarding service

1123: that's 275 more than the number of Madison residents who showed up to vote in last week's municipal election. Not that RVers would have any interest in voting in our municipal elections. Given that the vast majority of them have no connection with Madison other than the checks they write to Dakota International Services manager Terri Lund or owner Jon Knuths, these voters likely have no interest in who serves on our school board or city commission.

These faux residents thus depress our voter turnout numbers, though not by much. The official voter turnout last week in Ward 1 was 13.4%, the lowest of the four election zones. Assume that none of our RVers cast ballots, calculate turnout solely on the basis of real residents, and you get a Ward 1 turnout of 20.5%. That's an improvement, although still below the 21.4% turnout Ward 2 posted, and still below the kind of turnout that warms the cockles of good democrats' hearts.

The school board, city commission, and county commission can't do much to affect these fake residents. Property tax and utility bills won't touch them. The county commission might affect what the RVers pay to register their vehicles, but that's about it.

What might get the RV voters' attention is state level politics. Our RV ghost residents might have an interest in voting for a legislative candidate who vows never, ever, ever to vote for a state income tax... and 1123 is just a handful more than the number of votes by which Russell Olson beat Scott Parsley for a State Senate seat in 2008. One targeted mailing to all "residents" of 110 E. Center—or just one mass e-mail from the owner to all of his customers—could swing a lot of single-issue voters to one candidate.

Whichever way (and whether) these ghost residents vote, there is an fundamental inequity in permitting them to vote in Madison elections. They essentially buy permission to vote in a town where they don't really live. The South Dakota Supreme Court has said that an individual cannot gain eligibility for public office simply by maintaining voter registration at a rented mailing address in the office's jurisdiction while living mostly somewhere else. I would assume this ruling applies to voting in the elections of that jurisdiction as well.

And if that ruling does not forbid such rental voting, then I return to a complaint I make often: why can't my dad, who rents a mailing address in Madison and pays taxes to the city on numerous purchases and in-town properties, vote in our municipal elections? I guess if we country folks want to vote in Madison city elections, we simply need to pay Jon Knuths $150 a year.

I'm still researching how these ghost residents may affect our Census figures. Stay tuned!


  1. RGoeman 2011.04.20

    I think you're right on the Census figures because these residents are counted when we consider our population for another House of Representatives member, but I'm not sure when we hit that number. Another larger question is how those full-time RV residents affect our local population and skew trends that indicate flat sales tax revenue the past five years and a declining city population. Are those RV residents giving us a false sense of how many people we've lost in Madison?

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.04.20

    Good question, Rod! I'll see if My Dakota Address knows anything about its effect on Census count... but I notice their online contact page appears to be broken. That can't be good for business.

  3. Nick Nemec 2011.04.20

    I'm not sure but I think the census counts people where they actually are at the time of the census. In other words if those RVers are parked in an RV park in Yuma, Arizona on the date of the census then that is where they are counted. If they are actually parked in Madison then they are counted in Madison.

  4. Chris 2011.04.20

    That sure is possible Nick. When I was in college in 2000 my legal address was my parent's place in Minnesota, but I was counted in Brookings. Maybe it's the same for RVers. I'm excited to see the results of CAH's investigation :)

  5. Charlie Johnson 2011.04.20

    If we had the right tax structure, the RV'ers's would be paying into a system whereby they help contribute to education funding in this state. We have always been told that with perks and privilges comes responsibility--aleast in my humble life that is-I'm sure for most others also.

  6. Mike Stunes 2011.04.20

    I was under the impression that the Census is supposed to count people where they actually are most of the time--as an example, I'm still registered to vote in South Dakota, but for the Census, I'm physically located in Massachusetts most of the time.

  7. Virginia 2011.04.20

    Like Madison, Sioux Falls must have a huge number of out-of-state RV-ers who only use us to save money. These people need to "pay up" and benefit our state. It skews our voting register, census reports, etc. badly. Go get 'em. Thanks for a great job in enlightening your readers!

    {CAH: Thanks, Virginia! Sioux Falls has one similar RV mail-forwarding business that I know of, Alternative Resources. Rapid City has America's Mailbox. Any others you folks know of?}

  8. Allyson Nagel 2011.04.20

    So much for the head count concerning the census of Madi... What bothers me is the voting rights of these phantom citizens! This manipulation of democracy is criminal!! Come on... for $150 a year this service is suppose to look like a legitimate profiting business?

  9. Eve Fisher 2011.04.20

    This business - - combines mail, tax, and voter fraud all under one innocuous looking website. I have reported it and am reporting it to every watchdog group I can find. This is WRONG.

  10. RGoeman 2011.04.20

    These folks come here for a couple of reasons. They can pay much less in vehicle registration fees and licensing fees than another other state in the nation...And they pay no state income tax because they are considered a resident of South Dakota with SD driver's license. Once they are signed up, they leave. The State isn't going to complain because they get the added registration revenue from the RV's and autos, but local governments are getting shorted in sales tax revenue because none of them is filing their "use tax" reporting for sales tax not charged on their purchases. The voting thing is potentially dangerous if they all show up or absentee vote. Another firm in Emery, SD used to be the largest provider in South Dakota for residency and mailing services.

  11. Charlie Johnson 2011.04.20

    How about implementing the BEEF program-in order they aleast support our schools with their gross revenue? The BEEF program would be capped at 1%---far less than any other rate they would pay in state/federal tax anywhere else. If 1% or less is a deal breaker, then perhaps they are not the type of "residents" we want here anyhow. Or if we are unwillingly to levy their gross revenue, we deserve the disaster we have in school funding. By the way, we levy non-residents and residents alike when it comes to property taxes with the exception of the owner-occupied housing.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.04.20

    Explain that use tax loss, Rod. As I understand it, the RVers pay sales tax on the service they buy at MDA. They pay sales tax on all of their other purchases wherever they travel. What use tax aren't they paying?

    Charlie, let me throw this one in: what if we assess a personal property tax on mobile domiciles?

  13. Brett Hoffman 2011.04.20

    I agree that it is concerning that we can potentially have voters that are only very tangentially conected to the community, but let's be sure to be careful with our rhetoric.

    Being an RVer and registering in SD for tax purposes is not illegal, nor is it illegal to vote at that address. All U.S. citizens have a right to vote, regardless of whether or not they have a permanent address--the same as a homeless person still has a right to vote, even without a residence.

    I wonder if the problem is more a matter of enforcement than anything else--is anyone actually ensuring that people using these mail boxes don't have a semi-permanent address, or that they don't spend a majority of their time in one geographical place? I find it difficult to believe that with gas prices looking to do nothing but continue to increase that there will be large numbers of retirees that can genuinely afford to tool endlessly around the country in their wasteful vehicles.

  14. RGoeman 2011.04.20

    I may have had a brain fart, Cory, regarding the "use tax" on out of state purchases. I must have been thinking of internet purchases or something. It is interesting to note on absentee voting forms, they ask if you have been residing in the state in the past x-number of days. Maybe that's how we dilute the full-time RV'er votes.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.04.20

    Good point on policing, Brett: to whom would fall such policing duties? If it's state voting law, we can't send the SDHP down to Arizona to check the trailer parks, can we?

    Thanks for the clarification, Rod. On face, if everyone plays by the rules, there should be nothing illegal about living on the road. At base, we're talking about a lifestyle that has some merits (aside from all the gas usage). But on the philosophical side (I haven't even gone here yet), what does a life like that mean for a person's sense of community? On the practical political side, if state governments depend on income, property, and sales taxes, how do we balance the books and provide for services when RVers can mostly opt out of two of those three taxes, even as they visit various states and enjoy their paved roads, police protection, and parks?

  16. Eve Fisher 2011.04.21

    I'd like to make a few points: (1) Rod, don't be naive - if these people are lying in order to get SD residence, and they are, they'll lie on the absentee voting forms, too - it's not something anybody can check because it's absentee; (2) these people could well skew voting in, say, elections to which they might have some interest - such as US Senate, US Representative, Governor, and hot-button issues - this deserves some investigation, don't you think? To check to see if maybe a lot of folks at 110 E. Center voted for a certain candidate or issue? and, finally, (3) am I the only one bothered by the fact that the owner/operator of this "business" is the president of one of our local banks?

  17. Allyson Nagel 2011.04.21

    This issue has been going on for years! In Minnehaha County the five figure amount of "RVers" cause major overload with phone calls, plus their already long lines of tax payers and license purchasers in the court house treasury. SD says this is a cash cow for state revenue.... I think it is corrupt for a state to give any one person a loop hole of flying under the radar for tax purposes and even identity! Most of these nomads settle in other states for months at a time while living in that state with the options of obtaining a PO box, but still keeping their SD, so called, residence and saving money! Looks like our state is the chump.. we are a cheap date!

  18. Floyd Westerman 2013.10.21

    Progressive socialists in South Dakota won't stop fine people from from becoming residents. We'll ensure that South Dakota's strong traditional conservative orientation is preserved while we simultaneously deconstruct your attempts to unmoor yet another state from its roots.

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