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Senate committee approves tweak to school board elections law for South Dakota's most rural districts

For board elections in schools categorized as "sparse," there must be as many polling places as in a county commission vote under the proposed law. Supporters say it helps rural folks with long distances. Lemmon district official opposed the change, however.

Ryan Maher
Ryan Maher

PIERRE, S.D. — Boosting turnout on flagging school board elections is the impetus behind a proposed change to South Dakota's school board election law.

Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, says he drafted Senate Bill 104 after hearing from concerned rural residents in the Lemmon, South Dakota, school district over access to the ballot box. The district, Maher told the committee on Feb. 1, encompasses over 1,600-square miles but has only one polling place.

"You have instances where members have to drive 50 to 60 miles [to vote]," Maher said.

Maher's proposal restricts districts to the number of places designated by a county commission, in theory allowing easier access to the ballot box.

After committee discussion earlier this month, Maher further edited his bill to target only the 27 districts identified as "sparse" under state law.

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State law says a "sparse school district" are districts, among other requirements, enrolling fewer than half-a-student per square mile.

But on a bill hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 8, Anita Stugelmeyer, the business officer for the Lemmon School District, told the committee Maher wasn't speaking for the district when he brought the bill.

"I would like to present some election history for Lemmon School," said Stugelmeyer, describing an election in 2008 that saw a disproportionate majority of voters casting ballots in Lemmon proper.

Moreover, as the district spans three counties — Corson, Perkins and Ziebach — Stugelmeyer said the district would be forced to wrangle up to 18 poll workers instead of the three the district needs now.

"My concern is the district would not be able to secure sufficient election workers to run these elections," said Stugelmeyer.

Rob Munson, the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, concurred.

"We've had a few complaints that came to Sen. Maher," said Munson. "To change state law based on that would be an action in the wrong direction."

But the committee largely warmed to Maher's proposal, with Sen. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford, asking if "further enhancements" could be made to the bill before hitting the chamber floor.

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"I think it's very important that we make it easy for people to vote," said Steinhauer.

The committee passed the bill on a 6-1 vote.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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