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“The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” — Ronald Reagan

Voting is a core element of a democratic society. Protecting American voters’ right to make their voices heard should be one of the pillars our elected officials seek most carefully to uphold.

Why, then, are South Dakota legislators trying to cut the allotted time for absentee voting down by more than half?

Currently, South Dakota allows 46 days for absentee voting. House Bill 1178, co-sponsored by Sen. Brock Greenfield and Rep. Karl Perry, if approved, would cut that down to 14 days.

HB 1178 was first read in the state House of Representatives on Jan. 29, and referred to the House State Affairs committee. As of Friday afternoon, its appearance before that committee hadn’t yet been scheduled.

First, let’s clarify our terms: In South Dakota, “absentee” voting means all votes cast before election day (sometimes colloquially referred to as early voting). So, when you go to your county auditor’s office three weeks before Election Day — for whatever reason — that’s absentee voting. Sending in a ballot while you’re deployed overseas? Absentee voting. Mailing in a ballot while you spend the winter in Arizona, or are away for college? Absentee.

Second, let’s look at a little history. Absentee voting in the United States started during the Civil War as a way for soldiers to vote while they were far afield. Known as “excuse-required” absentee voting, it required the voter to provide a valid reason — like military service — why they couldn’t make it to the ballot box on Election Day.

But the convenience led some people to start fudging excuses — so instead of states “cracking down,” they decided to make it more accessible. Enter “no-excuse” absentee voting in the 1970s. Early in-person voting followed soon after in the ‘80s.

To reiterate, earlier state legislators took a now-rare approach to legislating by actually listening to their constituents and working to make their lives easier. Now, 37 states offer some form of early or absentee voting.

Now let’s look at the reasoning behind this proposed reduction in vote time. Perry, a Republican from Aberdeen, said “Forty-six days for early voting, in my opinion, is too long."

Why? It’s longer than the national average of 22 days, apparently.

Greenfield, a Republican from Clark, offered little more by explanation, other than a 46-day lead requires early ballot printing. Sometimes, he said, candidates want to change their mind about running, but they can’t because their name is already on the ballot.

Here’s our response: So?

Voting laws should be crafted to accommodate and protect voters, not politicians. And we certainly shouldn’t be worrying about politicians who may or may not know if they really want to run for office.

Pennington County Auditor-elect Cindy Mohler said county auditors across the state widely oppose this bill. Fourteen days is simply not enough time to mail out an absentee ballot, have the voter fill it out and return it, and be processed by the auditor’s office.

That’s a tight window to get a ballot to someone in Arizona, much less someone stationed in the Middle East.

And that’s the group of people we’re most worried about: our active-duty deployed military members. How does this bill factor in the federal Uniformed and Overseas Absentee Voting Act, which mandates 45 days for deployed military absentee voting? Are our legislators unaware of that, or do they simply expect our county auditors to abide by multiple deadlines?

Another group of people this will hit: farmers and ranchers. As one of our readers astutely pointed out, it can be difficult for farmers and ranchers to get away. Broken fences, sick livestock and malfunctioning equipment don’t care if it’s Election Day.

In Pennington County, thousands of people vote absentee every election. Prior to the November election, nearly 9,000 people had voted by Oct. 24. If this law had been in place, people wouldn’t have even been able to start casting absentee ballots until Oct. 24. Think of the added lines and increased time commitment — for voters and county officials. How many voters will this disenfranchise?

Is that what our legislators want?

To all legislators bent on making it hard to vote, we have to ask you to take a long, hard look at why. They say they’re willing to compromise and go longer than 14 days, but again, how is 22 days really much better? Voter turnout is already dreadfully low. Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to get more people to the polls than less? Isn’t this kind of ill-informed policy-making exactly what turns voters off from feeling like they have a voice?

HB 1178 is a bad bill. We hope the majority of our legislators see that and and stop its progress.

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