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Voters wait to check in on June 5 before voting at Southwest Middle School. Polling places across Rapid City experienced delays because electronic poll books were not working. 

On a normal election day, a dead person showing up to vote might be the biggest concern for the Pennington County auditor.

But Tuesday was not a normal election day in Rapid City.

“It was a mess,” said county auditor Julie Pearson, who has led the office for 32 years. “And I apologize to the candidates, to election workers, and, most importantly, to voters.”

Wednesday morning, Pearson hashed through the multiple snafus that began at 6:30 a.m. the previous day, starting with electronic poll books — in their first major vote test — that failed to connect to a server, carrying through to extended emergency hours at polls across the city, and ending with contradictory election results posted to the Secretary of State’s website.

At one hair-raising point Tuesday night, when the state’s website noted 100 percent count of precincts in Pennington County, the auditor in Rapid City printed off statistics showing just over half precincts were counted. Pearson told a Journal reporter, “Don’t look at the Secretary of State’s website; it’s wrong.”

Tuesday even saw one voter, Dale Jensen, show up to discover the auditor had erroneously wiped him from voting rolls.

“He was alive and breathing and wanted to vote,” Pearson said.

But a day later, the cloud had cleared and answers — some, at least — were arriving.

"That voter registration software (used to count ballots) works very well," said elections supervisor Lori Severson. "With a little bit of chaos plus some new people and new staff on jobs that they don't typically do, things got stressful."

She said workers in the county auditor's office loaded absentee ballots for all precincts, confusing the Secretary of State's website into reporting all precincts in. Around 10:15 p.m., for example, with the website reporting "100 percent" of precincts reporting, school board president Matt Stephens led his Area 1 challenger, Collin Boechler, 14 votes to 10 votes.

By midnight, the vote total for that race was over 3,000.

"That was more user error than anything," Severson said.

She said a thumb-drive used to haul vote totals from a computer not connected to the internet to a reporting computer was missing some precincts. Lastly, she wondered if late in the morning, around 1:30 a.m., staff wasn't pressing the "submit" button hard enough on the computer. 

"We had some issues," Severson said. 

The Secretary of State's office did not respond to questions submitted to them. 

The good news -- if any can be found when voters are turned away -- is these problems have identifiable solutions. What's not clear yet is what happened with the e-poll books.

The e-poll books used at eight counties across South Dakota all experienced difficulty in connecting to the secure network, due in part to lack of Wi-Fi or connection to an internal server. Some laptops, poll workers said, would cycle in and out of shutdown mode. Severson wondered if Rapid City's granite topography impacted connectivity. But digital poll books were shutting down in flat Brown County, too.

And not every county needed to extend hours.

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Patty Hojem, auditor in Yankton, one of the affected counties, said the county's seven polling sites utilized the e-poll books, which are managed by BPro, Inc., a Pierre election software company. The sites experienced problems in the morning but not in the afternoon. Rather than turning away voters, however, Hojem said each voting center had multiple laptops at each site.

“While one dialed down, unable to connect to the internet, another opened up,” she said. "People just had to be patient. That was all."

It’s still unclear whether the poll books — which are used to verify each voter's identity — failed due to internet connections or some internal server problem. BPro says it's not sure what went wrong.

“We continue to be in close contact with each of the counties to identify and resolve the issues. The counties are busy finalizing their elections, so a full report will take some time," said George Munro, director of government outreach with BPro.

On Wednesday morning, the county auditor, however, sounded more impatient.

“BPro has got to figure out what they’re doing or we’ll return these machines,” Pearson said.

A final lesson learned, Pearson said, was on communicating with the public. While election officials kept polls closed on Tuesday morning, no one announced the delay to voters. Word came from politicians and media reports. A social media presence might be necessary.

“I don’t do technology,” said Pearson, who is retiring at the end of her current term.  “But I’m hoping the new auditor will do that (set up a Facebook or Twitter account).”

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Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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