Sara Hornick and her husband, Chris, took their children to Southwest Middle School at 8 a.m. Tuesday to showcase the democratic process at work.
In the parking lot, a man was shouting.
“Turn around. Don’t waste your time. We can’t vote, anyway!”
Determined, she continued onward. At the desk where she’d normally verify her registration, a worker told her the electronic device — an e-poll book — wasn’t working.
“Any idea when it will be?” she asked.
“We have no idea,” the poll worker said, who then suggested she contact the Pennington County auditor.
It was a scene taking place at polling places across Rapid City. More than half the voting sites, 16 in all, extended the closing time on Tuesday’s election day to accommodate a late start to ballot-casting thanks to a computer problem: The county-issued Dell Computers that navigated the new e-poll book service were not connecting to the secure hot spots provided by a separate router for each device.
Julie Pearson, Pennington County auditor, said she had no idea of how many voters were turned away at polling places, but the clunky equipment failure dogged many precincts. The laptops started up, but the election software connecting officials to the Secretary of State's voter registration lists could not connect to the internet.
There was no paper back-up on hand, and without voter registration lists, poll workers couldn’t verify a voter’s identification and protect the integrity of the election process.
“It was a real mess,” said Chuck Parkinson, election worker at the Rapid City Library, who by mid-morning was “improvising,” like many sites across town, with paper booklets the county auditor’s office had rush-printed and distributed to affected polling sites.
The library — one of 31 voting sites across Pennington County — had problems connecting around 6:30 a.m., when the three workers arrived to start their day. Luckily, no early birds had yet arrived by the time an information technology repair person with the county had gotten the computer tied into a secure Wi-Fi network.
“We did get a few people to use the scanner and computer,” said election worker Curt Pochardt. When working, the system allows voters to tidily scan their driver’s license and up pops a digital record of their voter registration. They even processed a few voters this way but opted for the booklets for uniformity. They spent the rest of the day counting the number of voters — an important step for ensuring an accurate count — by hand.
“During all the training sessions, it all worked with a laptop,” Parkinson said.
The bad internet connection at a bigger polling place, South Middle School, was more consequential. Voters were turned away, said election workers. By noon, roughly half had returned.
“People were standing around peacefully,” said Don Nelson, a retired engineer, who had come into vote by 10:30 a.m. with his dog, Gretta. South Middle School stayed open until 8:45 p.m. to accommodate voters turned away.
The Secretary of State, Shantel Krebs, released a statement early in the afternoon announcing “sporadic loss of connectivity” causing voting delays in all eight counties across South Dakota, including Pennington, Brown (Aberdeen) and Hughes (Pierre), using electronic poll books.
Three polling places in Pierre would remain open up to 20 minutes later. But five times that many in Rapid City would remain open late, including a few — at South Middle School, Southwest Middle School and Parkview Church — for nearly two hours.
State law allows for the county auditor to extend polling hours after “emergency delays.” Pearson said delays typically derive from pulled fire alarms, tornadoes, or road closures — not internet connectivity issues.
Currently, 32 states allow for some form of e-poll books. In South Dakota, county commissions and county auditors opt in to using e-poll books. Other counties using e-poll books include Brookings, Brown, Hughes, Hyde, Potter, Sully and Yankton. BPro, an election software company based in Pierre, manages the voting software system in South Dakota.
“They make lines move faster and make sure the right voter is voting,” said George Munro, director of government outreach for BPro. He said the company is still working to figure out why laptops couldn't connect to each county-issued router's hot-spot.
"We do this in several counties in South Dakota, and some experienced problems right off the bat and resolved them. In three of them (Pennington, Hughes and Brown), they moved to the contingency plan (paper booklets) because the corrections weren't working as quickly as we hoped they would."
In January, for a citywide vote on whether to hike water rates — an election with admittedly less turnout — Bpro’s digital poll books were used without incident. They were also used in the 2016 election and can be an improvement to paper poll books, which need to be printed off and line-checked.
But on Tuesday, for many voters in Rapid City, e-poll books just meant voters couldn't vote. Hornick said her husband had returned Tuesday afternoon to vote and she hoped to before her voting center closed before 9 p.m. But she wondered about the other dozens she saw standing in the parking lot that morning at Southwest Middle School.
“If you blocked out your morning to go vote and you can’t come back, you lost voters," she said. "That’s the disappointing thing when you already have low voter turnout. Registering to vote isn’t a hard thing to do, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing, either, and then you go to vote and are told, ‘We can’t allow you to vote. You’ll have to come back.’
"That’s just super unfortunate.”