Newly introduced legislation seeks to reduce the influence of nomadic recreational-vehicle owners on South Dakota elections.
State Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, last week introduced a bill that would essentially forbid the use of a mail-forwarding service as an address for voter registration.
“It’s intended to make sure that people that vote in our elections here have at least some connection to South Dakota,” Tieszen said in a recent Journal interview, “and to make sure those people who do not have a connection to South Dakota do not participate in our elections.”
The bill targets nomadic recreational-vehicle owners, known as RVers, and others who use mail-forwarding services such as Americas Mailbox near Rapid City, whose address is listed by nearly 3,500 registered voters. Those voters do not actually live at the address but pay the business to help them establish a postal address, forward their mail and sometimes assist with other things including driver licensing, vehicle registration and concealed-weapon permitting.
Americas Mailbox and other businesses like it, including firms in Emery and Sioux Falls on the eastern side of the state, ostensibly serve people who travel year-round in their recreational vehicles and others who live nomadic lifestyles without a fixed home. Tieszen alleged that many of the customers are merely using South Dakota for its lack of a state income tax and low fees for vehicle registration and other services.
The potential for such people to exert outside influence on South Dakota elections became an issue in the Jan. 5 Pennington County wheel tax referendum, when some observers assumed that Americas Mailbox customers would be highly motivated to vote against the imposition of up to $60 in new annual taxes on vehicles.
As it turned out, only 11 percent of the Americas Mailbox customers who are registered to vote cast a ballot, which was less than the countywide turnout of 15 percent. The proposed tax was rejected by such a wide margin that the Americas Mailbox votes made no difference in the outcome.
Still, in the Americas Way precinct, named for the street on which Americas Mailbox is and which has its boundaries drawn around the business, there were 380 "no" votes against just seven "yes" votes, which amounted to 98 percent opposition.
Pennington County's elections supervisor told the Journal in the days following the election that such precinct-level results were not obtainable, but the Journal has since learned that the results for the Americas Way precinct were specially counted by county staff. Confronted with that information this week, the elections supervisor said she misunderstood the Journal's original request for the information.
Tieszen said the wheel-tax election illustrated the potential for nomadic RVers or any group with a political agenda to mass-register in South Dakota and swing an election.
Before the wheel-tax election, Don Humes, co-owner of Americas Mailbox, defended the right of his customers to register to vote in Pennington County. He said they bring thousands of dollars in extra revenue to the county and the state through vehicle licensing and registration fees, and they deserve a say in ballot issues that affect them financially.
“I’m surprised any politician would tell any citizen of the United States that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote,” Humes said at the time.
Tieszen's Senate Bill 164 says no person may register to vote using a business location, campground or post-office box as a registration address. If people wishing to register to vote have no other residential address or valid physical description of the location of their address, the bill says, they may appeal to the county auditor.
The county auditor could approve the appeal if the following four criteria listed in the bill are met:
- The sole basis for the person's presence at the location is not based on a business or a commercial use, such as a mail-forwarding service;
- The residence of the person is a place in which the person's habitation is fixed and to which the person has a definite plan to return following an absence;
- The person is not claiming residency of the state solely for taxation or insurance purposes with no intention of physically remaining or returning; and
- The person maintains a physical domicile with long-term sleeping accommodations at the residence.
If the county auditor denies an appeal, a person could then appeal to the state Office of Hearing Examiners. If an administrative law judge in the office determines that the four criteria have not been met, the voter registration could still be approved if the judge determines that "circumstances indicate legitimate residence of the state."
“Prior long-term residence in the state shall be considered proof of intention to return to the state,” the bill language says in its last line.
The bill has been assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee, of which Tieszen is a member.