South Dakota bill would require earlier voter registration due to ‘perceived’ election concerns

Legislation would also undo 30-day residency requirement imposed last year

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PIERRE — Despite county auditors saying it could result in fewer South Dakotans voting, a legislative committee endorsed a bill Wednesday that would require voters to register 30 days before an election rather than the current 15.

The House State Affairs Committee endorsed the bill with a 9-4 vote. 

Rep. Kirk Chaffee, R-Whitewood, introduced the bill language on the 28th day of the 38-day legislative session, taking advantage of rules that allow legislators to wholly replace the text of bills after the bill introduction deadline has passed.

The legislation that Chaffee amended was previously a two-sentence bill to require the state Board of Elections to meet before each legislative session and recommend changes to election laws; the new, three-page bill still does that, along with the change to the registration deadline and a repeal of a strict 30-day residency requirement imposed last year. Similar residency requirements in other states have sparked lawsuits asserting that an American citizen’s right to vote in a federal election can’t be denied by a local residency law.

Chaffee said the bill is necessary to alleviate “perceived concerns” regarding the integrity of the state’s elections. He said moving the registration deadline 15 days earlier would “allow time to discover errors” and “ensure the prevention of fraud.”

The bill would also add language into law saying “Only a citizen of the United States may vote in a municipal, county, primary, general, school district or any other election in this state.” It would replace the 30-day state residency requirement with less stringent language saying a person must have “fixed a habitation” in the state to which they intend to return.

Some lawmakers have said the residency language passed last year won’t withstand legal scrutiny, and some county auditors have said enforcing the residency requirement has been a headache. An attempt to undo that language failed earlier this session.

“This was a concern I had with legislation passed last year and it must be undone,” Chaffee said. 

County auditors run elections in South Dakota. Some of them testified against the change to the voter registration deadline in the bill.

“Our kids who are right out of high school, that era, they’re not thinking far enough ahead, 30 days, to come register to vote,” Kathy Glines, Harding County auditor, told South Dakota Searchlight after the bill passed. “But 15 days, they are.” 

“If we lose that 15 days for them, I think we’re going to lose them as voters,” she said.

After the committee hearing, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota issued a statement calling the bill “merely a pretext to disenfranchise voters.”

“Restricting the terms and requirements of registration is one of the most common forms of voter suppression,” wrote Samantha Chapman, ACLU of South Dakota advocacy manager.

Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, signed on as the Senate prime sponsor of the bill when it was only two sentences requiring the state Board of Elections to meet annually and suggest election-law changes.

He became a vocal opponent of his own bill Wednesday after it was amended. He and the two Democrats serving on the House State Affairs Committee called the move to amend the bill a deception and said it would cause them to reconsider who they work with on legislation in the future. 

“I am so angry about this,” said Rep. Erin Healy, D-Sioux Falls.

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration.

Thomas Deadrick is the deputy secretary of state under Republican Secretary of State Monae Johnson, who is the state’s top elections official. He testified that the office supports the bill. 

Deadrick declined an interview and would not answer South Dakota Searchlight questions after his testimony.