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Unofficial recount, new-found votes vault Overweg ahead of Bahmuller in District 19 race

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ARMOUR -- On June 2, Jessica Bahmuller thought she was on a path for a seat in the South Dakota House of Representatives. Now she is searching for what’s next.

On primary election night, Bahmuller finished second to Kent Peterson in the District 19 vote count, tallying 1,741 votes to best Marty Overweg by 21 votes. The top-two vote-getters earned seats in the Legislature. But on Monday, Bahmuller was told there was a discrepancy in the final numbers. There were 86 votes not counted on election night from Douglas County and one not counted from Hutchinson County.

Unofficially, Bahmuller was told there were no changes in Bon Homme, Hanson and McCook counties and one vote changed in Hutchinson County. In Douglas County, there were 52 additional votes for Marty Overweg, 23 for Kent Peterson and 11 for Bahmuller. The new tallies put Overweg ahead of Bahmuller by 20 votes and, if accurate, would give Overweg the spot in the Legislature.

Douglas County Auditor Phyllis Barker gave an unofficial updated count of 651 votes for Overweg, 310 for Peterson and 240 for Bahmuller. According to Barker, the changes were not discovered until the recount took place and the error only occurred in reporting to the state system, not in counting ballots.

An official recount for District 19 was announced by the South Dakota Secretary of State's office on June 17, but that it wouldn't start until June 22.

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Meanwhile, the South Dakota Secretary of State’s office has yet to comment.

“Being the first woman elected from any of those five counties, I think it’s pretty heartbreaking for that whole district,” said Bahmuller, an Alexandria resident. “I think everyone had this faith in our system and I think the voters in District 19 will lose some of that faith. … I would have much rather lost on election night, versus three weeks later finding 86 votes.”

Douglas County used two automatic tabulators, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of absentee ballots skyrocketed. According to Barker, 525 absentee ballots were submitted in Douglas County during the primary election, compared to 70 in the 2018 primary.

"I assembled an absentee board to count the absentee ballots prior to the regular election ballots on election day," Barker told the Mitchell Republic via email. "This was done on two machines. Then the regular ballots were counted. When it came time to report them to the state system, the tabulator report from both absentee counts needed to be added to the precinct total by hand and then entered into the state reporting system. This is where the human error occurred when adding these by hand. One of the absentee counts was not added into the final figure that was reported to state."

The Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve the primary election canvass results on June 4, with no discrepancies noted in the minutes. Bahmuller says the Douglas County auditor’s office told her over the phone that there was a discrepancy noted.

South Dakota open meetings law states, “The state shall keep detailed minutes of the proceedings of all regular or special meetings. The minutes required in this section shall report how each individual member voted on any motion on which a roll call vote is taken. The minutes shall be available for inspection by the public at all times at the principal place of business of the board or commission.”

“On June 4, they unanimously voted to approve the results of the canvass,” Bahmuller said. “I was told over the phone, though, that they were not. The minutes don’t show that and I’m a finance officer, so that should have been listed if it was discussed and it wasn’t.”

Barker, however, claims this was a case of misunderstanding in the conversation and reaffirmed that it was a reporting error that was not known to anyone at the canvass and the number of ballots cast matched the poll books and the recap sheets.

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"Our ballot count was not wrong," Barker said. "It was just a reporting error from reporting the numbers that were voted to the reporting system. Maybe they overlooked that, but it wasn't a known discrepancy to anybody at the canvass."

Overweg, a resident of New Holland in Douglas County, told the Mitchell Republic on Tuesday he had only heard rumors of a change in votes and chose not to comment until the votes were final. He did say that he reached out to the Secretary of State’s office, but received no information.

Bahmuller has an option to file a petition to a state senator or representative for recount, but she has not made a decision on how to proceed.

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