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A man drops his ballot into the box after voting at Canyon Lake Senior Center in November. Two measures aimed at cleaning up election-related laws are proposed in the Legislature.

Journal file

PIERRE | Vote centers might work well for South Dakota residents, but they present some challenges for candidates and county and state election officials.

That’s what Secretary of State Shantel Krebs told members of the House State Affairs Committee on Friday morning while discussing two bills that would clean up election-related laws.

The primary issue, she said, is that counties that use vote centers can’t track election returns by precinct. And that creates problems when it comes to determining the number of signatures some candidates need to collect to get their names on the ballot.

Under current state law, the number of signatures needed to be a candidate for the Legislature, county public office and county party office is determined by the number of people who voted for their party’s nominee in the last gubernatorial election. But without precinct numbers, those thresholds sometimes can’t be determined.

A legislative district, for instance, might include only some precincts in a particular county.

Now, for partisan candidates, the requirement is 50 signatures or not fewer than 1 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots for a party’s candidate in the last election for governor, whichever is less.

For independent candidates, the number of signatures required is at least 1 percent of the total number of registered voters in the legislative district, county or county commission district during the last general election.

Krebs’ proposal sets flat numbers for both partisan and independent candidates in counties that have vote centers:

• 50 signatures for a legislative candidate whose district either in whole or in part includes a county with a vote center;

• 30 signatures for a county candidate;

• 15 signatures for a county commissioner candidate in which there are commission districts, and

• Five signatures for new party legislative candidates whose district either in whole or in part includes a county with a vote center.

The existing signature requirements would remain in place for counties that don’t have vote centers.

Brown, Brookings, Hughes, Hyde, Potter, Sully and Yankton counties use vote centers. That means registered voters may cast ballots at any established polling place in the county as opposed to their designated precincts.

To track precinct results, each vote center in Brown County would have needed to have more than 30 ballots on hand in November, Krebs said.

She said candidates, including Democrat Susan Wismer, of Britton, called her before last year’s election with questions about the number of signatures needed.

Krebs said another reason she prefers precincts to vote centers is that candidates and others like to look at precinct numbers, as they reveal a lot about voters.

In some areas, the new numbers would require candidates to collect more signatures, which Rep. Spencer Howley, D-Brookings, noted he doesn’t like. But, he conceded, the new guidelines make sense given there are not precinct numbers available in vote center counties. Besides, he said, any candidate who can’t gather 50 signatures probably shouldn’t be running for office.

The signature number changes are just one part of multifaceted House Bill 1037, which was moved to the full House on an 11-0 vote. Among other things, the measure:

• Requires that nominating petitions be “self-contained” sheets of paper.

That, Krebs said, means they have to be printed with a front and a back so voters know what they’re signing.

In other words, a candidate can’t circulate a sheet with just signature lines on it.

• Clarifies that a candidate must sign a declaration of candidacy before circulating petitions.

• Clarifies that a “secondary” election is a runoff election.

• Clarifies that candidates for applicable offices may start collecting signatures at the first second of a new year as opposed to 8 a.m.  Jan. 1.

• Requires that independent gubernatorial candidates name their lieutenant governor candidates and that independent presidential candidates name their running mates before circulating nominating petitions.

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• Requires political parties that do not have primary elections to set a process by which they select their delegates and alternates to the national convention and notify the secretary of state’s office of that process.

The other measure Krebs discussed was Senate Bill 1035. It stipulates scenarios in which challenges to statewide ballot petitions be made in court as opposed to her office.

For instance, she said, her staff can check names and addresses and whether a petition has a notary seal. But there’s no way workers can know whether a petition was signed in the presence of a circulator, as the law required. In that case, a judge would have to make a ruling after hearing evidence, she said.

The same guidelines would also apply to cities, counties and school districts when they oversee elections.

“We could be challenged to infinity,” Krebs said.

And, in fact, the two bills she pitched were the result of ballot challenges last year that resulted in five lawsuits.

SB1035 also:

• Requires that paper copies of nominating petitions be delivered to Krebs’ office by 5 p.m. deadline day. Last year, she said, one batch arrived electronically at 4:57 p.m. That scenario isn’t now covered by state law, she said.

• Requires that her office notify sponsors of ballot measures by certified mail whether they are approved or not.

• Prohibits political parties from paying petition circulators per signature. A violation would be a misdemeanor.

The measure was moved to the full House on an 11-0 committee vote.

Krebs said the state’s nonpartisan election board has discussed both bills. She said Judge Mark Barnett suggested the changes to election laws while handling petition-related lawsuits.

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