SF mayor’s refusal to ‘play’ nixes ballot drop boxes, affects voting throughout county

By: 
Dave Baumeister, County correspondent
Dave Baumeister/For the Journal 
Even on Saturday, as the general election gets closer, Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz works to process the thousands of ballot requests received by his office. 
SIOUX FALLS – For the last 10 years, Minnehaha County Auditor Bob Litz has performed his duties around one main philosophy: “I’m greedy about ballots. I want to get every one in that count. Every one! And let the chips fall where they may.”
 
As auditor, Litz is the person in charge of all elections in the county, whether they be at the national, state, county, city or school level.
 
Although he does point out that work he does for the City of Sioux Falls and area school districts is not actually part of his job description.
 
And that makes Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken’s latest decree that the county will not be allowed to put ballot drop boxes at all of the Siouxland Library branches hard to take.
 
While the county runs the libraries, according to Litz, the city owns the land they are on.
 
This issue came up after the auditor told Minnehaha County Commissioners about his plan to purchase 15 drop boxes for absentee ballots to be placed around the county, mainly at the libraries.
 
Litz said he had not planned to talk to the mayor or city council about it until he had more information about the ballot boxes, security of those boxes, in addition to other arrangements.
 
All the time these plans were in the works, though, he had been in close contact with South Dakota Secretary State Steve Barnett and Sioux Falls City Clerk Tom Greco, and both gave their approval of Litz’s plan for collecting ballots.
 
“I didn’t want to use other properties (believing the libraries would be more secure), because people seem to have a respect for government properties,” Litz said.
 
And he wanted them outside so people would have “24/7 access” to drop off their ballots.
 
He also noted that all of the libraries have cameras, as an added security.
 
On Sept. 18, 45-days prior to the election, absentee voting begins in the state. On that day, Litz said 23,000 ballots will be mailed out.
 
Last spring, Barnett mailed out request forms for ballots to every registered voter in the state.
 
While the intention at that time was mainly geared for voting in South Dakota’s June primaries, voters could also use the request forms for ordering general election ballots.
 
And that resulted in a “pre-order” of 21,000 absentee ballots.
 
TenHaken, however, cited “security reasons” for not allowing the drop boxes to be placed at the libraries. Litz said 30,000 to 35,000 ballots will be solely at the mercy of mail boxes, which have far less security than what he was planning for.
 
Apart from the security cameras at the libraries, Litz explained that the boxes he planned to order would only open far enough to place one or to ballots in at a time.
 
He also said he watched a video of a truck with chains failing to be able to pull away the bolted down ballot boxes. Very few mailboxes have that kind of security, but, again, Litz was hoping to gather as many eligible ballots as safely as possible.
 
Ironically so, first the mail system and now drop boxes, have come under attack as being “unsecure” by Republican President Donald Trump.
 
And while Litz was careful not to specifically say this is a political move on the part of TenHaken, with a “knowing smile,” he did say, “It seems awfully convenient to blame time and security” when the drop boxes could be purchased and installed in locations more secure than mailbox locations in plenty of time to be useful.
 
The true irony is in what seems to be political blow-back from city and county Republicans following the president’s philosophies on voting, the move not to make voting as accessible as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic will be more likely to keep South Dakota’s core voters – older, white Republicans – away from the polls in November.
 
But Litz, also a Republican, is not completely deterred in wanting to make voting easier, as he is still planning to install two drop boxes on county property: one on the west side of the county administration building, near a drop box for the public to deposit property tax payments, and the other at the county election center at Sixth and Dakota in Sioux Falls.
 
That building will also be used for in-person absentee voting starting Sept. 18. The drop box will make it possible for those who ordered ballots to deposit their tallies without going inside the county administration building and waiting in line.
 
These boxes also eliminate people having to pay the approximate $1.50 postage to return their ballot.
 
Litz looked at that postage as being similar to a “poll tax,” which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
Despite any political party argument against making voting easier, Litz emphasized that this is part of what he was elected to do. However, to get to the point of receiving a ballot, there are systems already in place to keep things secure and legal.
 
Litz explained the process that before anything can happen, people have to be registered to vote.
 
When people request ballots, their names are checked against the list of registered voters.
 
After that, the signatures and ID on the applications are checked to see if they match the registration.
 
If they do, ballots are sent out when absentee voting officially begins.
 
If these things do not all match, ballots are not sent. At that time, though, if time permits before the election, voters are contacted by the auditor’s office to try and rectify mistakes.
 
(Litz used an example of one person signing ballot requests for multiple people in the same household. Requests must be completed and signed by the voter requesting the ballot. Also, only one ballot request should be in each envelope.)
 
When ballots are returned – and not all are – signatures are again checked, and notations are made in the precinct books showing that person had voted, and if they voted by mail or in-person absentee, so when the precinct books are printed off and sent out, this information is noted.
 
If someone comes in who has already voted, they would not be allowed to vote again.
 
Also, absentee votes are only counted from people who use their original ballot.
 
Litz cited just two occasions over the last 10 years in Sioux Falls when people tried to vote more than once, and at least one of those was a bizarre coincidence.
 
In a past national election, the auditor’s office was contacted about a person who voted absentee in Sioux Falls, and sometime after that, moved to New Hampshire, where it was realized a possible conflict might occur.
 
That conflict was discovered, and the person was not allowed to vote a second time in New Hampshire.
 
On another occasion, in a Sioux Falls precinct, two men who lived nine blocks apart in different precincts had the exact same names, even including their middle initial.
 
One man went to the wrong precinct and was mistakenly allowed to vote. When the correct voter showed up, he was surprised to learn he had “voted earlier in the day.”litz
 
Litz was contacted, and he reviewed the registry only to find the two similar names.  contacted the other precinct and learned that voter who lived there had not voted yet, so the error was caught, and they arranged for the person who hadn’t been able to vote to cast a ballot in the other precinct.
 
“Fortunately, both ballots were the same,” Litz said.
 
Litz’s plan not only included placing ballot boxes in Sioux Falls, but throughout the county, too. After learning Sioux Falls “was not going to play,” he nixed the plan completely.
 
“Sioux Falls is where most of the votes will come from,” he said, “so that is where it would have done the most good.”
 
But Litz remains frustrated by TenHaken’s recent decision.
 
“We bend over backwards to help (Sioux Falls) with their elections,” he said, although his work for Sioux Falls goes beyond the auspices of his job, he added, “We will continue to help the city, because that is what the taxpayers expect, despite the shortcomings of administrators.”
 
Litz reminds voters when casting their ballot by mail to return them as soon as possible, so a glut at the post office, which his plan was to avoid, doesn’t stop someone’s vote from being counted.
 
His biggest fear is that “COVID gets to work, and we will lose workers and have to close some of the polling places.”
 
To offset that scenario, the auditor’s office continues to seek precinct workers. To do so, call (605) 367-4220.

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