Remember last school year, when the Madison Central School District offered to set up absentee voting stations at basketball games and other school events, community events, and even private workplaces? To promote the first vote on the district's new gym bond issue, the school board dispatched then-business manager and election official Cindy Callies around town with absentee ballots to get as many yes votes as she could. The school allowed Callies to deputize Madison Edcuation Foundation exec Monica Campbell to do the same.
I expressed grave concerns at the time that such practices called into question the integrity of the ballot. Many fellow citizens expressed similar concerns to the Secretary of State's office. Both outgoing Secretary Chris Nelson and newly sworn Secretary Jason Gant found these vote-stacking practices to be technically legal. Secretary Gant did feel compelled to issue an admonishment during Madison Central's first vote last year to keep the vote honest.
Now Secretary Gant is backing legislation to make sure Madison Central's abuse of absentee voting does not happen again. Senate Bill 137, sponsored by Senator Dan Lederman (R-16/Dakota Dunes) makes two basic changes in absentee voting law:
- Citizens seeking an absentee ballot in person must do so at the office of the person in charge of the election. The business manager cannot traipse around the district with a ballot box to snag likely yes votes.
- School and city elections now must follow SDCL 12-19, the same absentee voting rules that apply to other elections.
Secretary Gant explained the motivation SB 137 in testimony to the Senate Local Government committee on February 6:
We have some entities that are... having absentee voting at basketball games. They're having absentee voting at PTA meetings. They're having absentee voting at a variety of school functions. My concern there is if you were to have someone who wanted to try and influence an election, if you take the ballot box to those people that you would assume are going to be more than likely favorable to either a yes vote on an opt out or a no vote on an opt out, you could then possibly affect the election by going to those groups and trying to provide them that ballot instantly [Secretary of State Jason Gant, testimony to Senate Local Government committee on SB 137, South Dakota State Legislature, Pierre, SD, 2012.02.06].
Senator Gant said the bill does not hinder anyone—school officials, candidates, campaigners—from encouraging folks to vote absentee. SB 137 simply says those campaigners can't carry and collect official ballots around the district.
Secretary Gant said the main focus of SB 137 is the sanctity of the ballot:
The icing on the cake was when we were told that some officials actually bring the ballot box to their home at night for anyone that may want to stop by their house and vote. I have serious concerns that we're having the ballot box move around that much. I think it's important that we have security with our elections. The only place we have that completely secure is in the courthouse or in the city or school office [Gant testimony, 2012.02.06].
Speaking in favor of the bill, Senator Craig Tieszen (R-34/Rapid City) revealed he doesn't read the Madville Times enough:
I had no idea this was happening. The thought of taking the ballot box on a roadshow sounds really scary to me [Sen. Craig Tieszen, Senate Local Government committee discussion, 2012.02.06].
And it was scary to a lot of Madison voters when Madison Central conducted its ballot box roadshow in its 2010-2011 vote-stacking scheme.
Madison voters and fellow citizens statewide should take heart: SB 137 has sailed through Senate Local Government, the full Senate, and House Local Government without one word or vote in opposition.