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SD House votes to shorten absentee voting window by two weeks

PIERRE, S.D. -- The House on Thursday, Feb. 21, narrowly passed a bill that would shorten the window for South Dakotans to vote via absentee ballot from 46 days to 32.

House Majority Leader and prime sponsor of House Bill 1178 Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said the majority of information on candidates and ballot measures emerges in the final weeks leading up to an election. Shortening the early voting window will help voters make more informed choices, he told legislators before they cast a 36-33 vote.

The bill would not apply to South Dakotans serving in the military due to federal law.

Qualm's original version of the bill shortened the window more dramatically to 14 days. Before passing it by a 11-2 vote, the House State Affairs committee on Thursday, Feb. 14, amended it to begin early voting on the first Friday of October prior to a general election. Qualm said Thursday he doesn't know how the bill would apply to special elections.

The Secretary of State's office opposed the bill, and multiple representatives on Thursday said their local auditors oppose it, as well.

Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, told legislators that auditors in Minnehaha County, which has the largest concentration of voters in the state, are already strapped for time to count absentee ballots. House Minority Whip Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, said his local auditors opposed the bill because voters living on reservations, who sometimes have to vote via absentee ballot due to their location, would be disproportionately impacted by the bill.

"Right now, [the window] works," Lesmeister said. "There's nothing broken with it."

Qualm said he doesn't see how shortening the window would disenfranchise voters, and that 32 days is a "very reasonable time frame."

"I believe there's no way it will hurt anybody who votes," he said. "People will go vote if they want to vote. I don't see how this hinders anyone at all."

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem at a Thursday, Feb. 14, news conference didn't take a firm stance on HB 1178, but said, “We want to make sure everyone gets the chance to vote."

Both the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota (ACLU-SD) and the South Dakota Democratic Party (SDDP) are opposed to the bill.

HB 1178 now moves onto the Senate for consideration before reaching Noem's desk.