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Davison Co. to replace voting machine despite task force finding no fault

Davison County will spend $72,000 to replace a vote-counting machine that the county auditor claims is broken, even though a task force said two years ago the machine is fine.

Tuesday at the courthouse in Mitchell, the County Commission approved the purchase of a new $108,000 machine -- $36,000 of which will be offset by a grant -- to be used during the June 3 primary election. It will be acquired from the same company that supplied the current machine, which was the subject of controversy when the county Auditor's Office reported inaccurate vote tallies the night of a June 2012 election.

County Auditor Susan Kiepke said she does not have full confidence in the county's current machine, known as the M650, and recommended the county purchase a DS850, an upgraded model from Election Systems and Software, of Omaha, Neb.

"I wouldn't ask the county to spend the money on a new machine if I didn't think that it was completely necessary," she said. "I just don't want us to go through what we did last time. There's no guarantee that ours will work in the next election."

After the error-plagued 2012 local election, South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant convened a task force consisting of county auditors from around the state and conducted an investigation. The task force issued a written report and determined the county's current vote-counting machine was "100 percent accurate" during that election. Since the machine was determined to be accurate, human error was the apparent cause of the inaccurate vote tallies.

Despite that report, Kiepke, in an interview Tuesday with The Daily Republic, still claimed the machine was not operating correctly during the 2012 election.

"The commissioners and I are not confident that it will run accurately," she said, referring to the county's current machine.

In an interview with The Daily Republic after the report was issued in 2012, Secretary of State Gant said the task force "proved the machine is fine."

Kiepke said Tuesday she does not agree with Gant's assessment of the machine. She said a new vote counting machine will better ensure there won't be problems in the future.

"There is never a guarantee, but I will be much more comfortable with a different machine," she said. "I want to do everything I can to ensure the voters of accuracy."

Commission Chairman John Claggett said he is not certain there is anything wrong with the county's current vote-counting machine, but he still believes it's time for an upgrade.

"We just need to make sure we're doing everything possible to make sure our counts are right," Claggett said.

Kiepke said Davison County has $36,000 in Help America Vote Act funds that will help pay for the machine. She said once the purchase of the machine is finalized, the county will be reimbursed $36,000, meaning the county will ultimately be responsible for $72,000 of the total cost.

The day after the election in 2012, Kiepke acknowledged there were errors in the results, including a discrepancy of more than 400 votes between a pair of city-level races that should have had a similar number of votes. After a canvassing process two days after the election that took 14 hours, votes were counted twice more and the victory margins and vote totals were changed. All winners and losers remained the same.

At the time, Kiepke blamed the problems on the machine or its software, even though a company technician said there was nothing wrong with the machine.

Commissioners who were serving in 2012 said Tuesday that they didn't want to go through a similar experience, with Commissioner Denny Kiner calling the county's current machine "a lemon."

"We need to ensure the citizens of Davison County that we're having the fairest election we can have," Kiner said.

Commissioner Randy Reider expressed concerns about purchasing another machine from a company that the county has had problems with in the past. Kiepke said there are no other options for machines, because the state government wants to have consistency across the state.

"We're faced with working with the same company," Reider said. "The company was not able to ascertain what went wrong last time and I'm just having a hard time believing that we should have confidence in them again."

Despite his concern, Reider and the other four commissioners present approved the purchase.

Kiepke said the county has had its current machine since she was elected in 2006 and estimates the county has had it longer than that.

"We talked about selling to another county, but I don't know who would buy mine after all of the publicity it got," Kiepke said.

Ethan highway shop to close

The Commission agreed with Highway Superintendent Rusty Weinberg's decision to close the county's highway shop in Ethan, after nearby Rome Township decided to privately contract its road maintenance services.

Weinberg said the county only keeps one road maintainer and will only have a few miles to cover in the southeast portion of the county. Any equipment that is needed in that part of the county will come from the county's Mitchell operations.

"If we can save a little money, that makes the most sense," he said. "It might not be a lot at first, but I think it could be $4,000 or $5,000 each year, and that's money that can be better used somewhere else."

Weinberg said the county will continue to keep electricity at the building, allowing the highway workers to continue using the overhead door and the lights at the shop. He said the building will be valuable in the summer, allowing the county to keep mowers at that site or road equipment if the work is being done in the south end of the county. But the department will no longer have water or heat at the facility.

Commissioner Gerald Weiss, who lives in Rome Township, said he supports the move.

"I agree 100 percent," Weiss said. "There's no sense in having it down there for the few miles that are out there."

Weinberg said if Rome Township decides to come back under county maintenance at some point, then the county can reconsider turning on utilities at the shop site.

Other business

In other business, the commission:

• Opened and awarded bids for the county's four surplus road graders and two wheel loaders, which brought a total of $105,500 from a pair of bidders.

• Awarded weed chemical and highway equipment bids to the lowest bidder for the coming year.

• Set a time of 10:45 a.m. April 1 to hear about a funding request from the Purr and Ruff Animal Rescue Support group, which rescues animals from around the county outside of Mitchell city limits.

• Approved a proclamation to make April 23, 24 and 25 Sexual Assault Awareness Days in the county and encouraged courthouse employees to wear jeans on those days to raise awareness.

• Accepted two donated U.S. flags that were donated from the local Modern Woodmen Youth Service club.

• Noted the start of Consolidated Board of Equalization meetings, with an introductory meeting April 1 and a tentative schedule including meetings from 6 to 8 p.m. starting April 8 and running through April 29 if necessary.

• Approved previous meeting minutes, abatements and outstanding bills.

-- The Daily Republic's Chris Mueller contributed to this report.