Post-election audit bill among litany of election moves in South Dakota

“We don't like the mistrust and rhetoric that we have faced in the aftermath of the 2020 election,” one county auditor told a House committee on Feb. 27.

Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron, explains a bill establishing post-election audits to the House State Affairs committee on Feb. 27, 2023. Around two-thirds of states have post-election processes that act as a check on election results.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — There may not be door-knocking or dueling postcards, but it’s election season in the South Dakota Legislature.

With just one more week to pass policy bills through both chambers, the fate of the “Stronger and Safer for 2024” legislative package, a set of around a dozen election-related proposals backed by Republican leadership in the House and Senate, is nearly set, with a large majority of these changes appearing set to cruise through the rest of the legislative process.

Yet those bills endorsed by leadership are just one part of some 40 bills engaging with election law this session, with many of these bills coming from rank-and-file membership, several of them dealing with similar subjects as the leadership-endorsed package but coming from the right-wing of the Republican Party.

For Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, incorporating different ideas — both from county auditors and lawmakers — on keeping voter registration records up to date, establishing post-election audits, testing ballot tabulators and more, has been an effective way to approach the state’s elections.

“It's been a real collaborative process with a lot of members,” he said. “And we had very good elections before but we'll have the absolute best here soon.”


House committee advances election audits, ban on ranked-choice voting

In the House State Affairs committee on Feb. 27, two of these bills made their way out to the floor with strong margins — Senate Bill 55, which prohibits ranked-choice voting, on a 12-1 vote, and Senate Bill 160, which establishes post-election audits, on a unanimous vote.

According to Rep. Drew Peterson, of Salem, who is carrying the audit bill in the House, the proposal draws from “best practices” in the 34 other states that currently have post-election processes designed to make sure that elections are running correctly.

Under the proposal, within 15 days of the election, an auditing board appointed by the county auditor will randomly select a sample of 5% of county precincts, in most counties just one precinct, representing at least 100 ballots.

In smaller counties, getting to 100 ballots may require selecting a second precinct.

In these designated precincts, the county auditor will select two contests and manually count the batch of selected ballots, comparing those to the official election results in these races.

A recount can be requested by a candidate if the audit shows a discrepancy "greater than the margin by which any contest for elected office on the ballot in the county was decided."

During the hearing in front of several of the House’s top lawmakers, two county auditors offered a few small suggestions but generally testified in favor of the bill.

“We don't like the mistrust and rhetoric that we have faced in the aftermath of the 2020 election,” Lindley Howard, the auditor in McPherson County, said in favor of the bill. “We understand that something must change. Auditors have nothing to hide, and we want to do what we can to reassure the voters of South Dakota that their elections are fair and accurate.”


A fiscal note from the Legislative Research Council estimated a statewide cost of $32,000 every two years; that tab will be picked up by the secretary of state rather than already-cash-strapped counties, according to Sen. David Wheeler, of Huron.

"I don't want to make further burdens on the county in terms of their cost obligations," he said. "They already have a lot on their plate."

In advancing Senate Bill 55, Sen. John Wiik, of Big Stone City, argued that ranked-choice voting has made elections more complicated nearly everywhere it has been tried — referencing the lengthy count in New York’s 2021 mayoral election as well as statewide contests in Alaska and Maine that have some in those states attempting to undo the method.

“Our system is very simple,” Wiik said in arguing for banning the practice. “It is fair and it is generally trusted by the voting public.”

In short, ranked-choice voting allows voters to “rank” candidates, rather than only voting for one candidate and potentially voting again in the case of a runoff.

Under most ranked-choice systems, a ranking of a second or third-place candidate is only counted in the case that a voter’s first-choice candidate is eliminated, sometimes referred to as an “instant runoff.”

Rep. Erin Healy, of Sioux Falls, was the lone vote against the change in committee.

Election changes involve back-and-forth within Republican Party

On top of the “Stronger and Safer for 2024” package endorsed by leadership, dozens of other election-related bills have entered the legislative fray, many of them coming from the more conservative wing of the party.


Many of these proposals have been melded into one another — for example, with the post-election audit bill, an amendment incorporated one section from a similar bill proposed by Rep. Julie Auch, of Yankton, to better define how the State Board of Elections will oversee the process.

“It’s not uncommon in a legislative process that people in different chambers have similar ideas and to blend the best ideas from both to make the best bill,” Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree, of Madison, said. “So we've definitely been encouraging that.”

Another issue — helping different entities in the state share information to allow county auditors to keep the state’s voter rolls up to date following events like deaths, felony convictions, address changes and more — engaged in a similar process.

Senate Bill 140, carried by Sen. Steve Kolbeck, of Brandon, incorporates parts of similar proposals from Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, of Rapid City, and Rep. Tina Mullaly, of Rapid City.

Mullaly is now a prime sponsor of the bill.

“I think the biggest thing about them is you’ve got to have the auditors on board, because they're the boots on the ground,” Kolbeck said. “So ours was supported by the auditors, and some of them weren't. But we tried to take a conglomeration of them and just get to where everyone could agree on something so that we can move the ball forward.”

In an interview with Forum News Service, Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke said she wasn’t one of the auditors reached out to by lawmakers in working on election law prior to the session.

However, she generally felt good about the ability of her office to implement the bills regarding post-election audits and voter roll updates, albeit with some questions, such as how temporary changes of address for students might be dealt with.


The voter registration update bill passed the South Dakota House of Representatives by a unanimous vote on Feb. 27, and now heads to the desk of Gov. Kristi Noem.

Though Mullaly said she isn’t entirely satisfied with the overall efforts in securing South Dakota’s election, the changes headed into law haven’t gone unnoticed.

“There's a toe in the door,” she said. “We're making strides to fix our elections.”

“The Biden administration hasn't done enough to keep Americans safe," the governor said during her remarks, positioning South Dakota as an example of how states can protect American interests.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
What To Read Next
Get Local