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Freedom Caucus zeroes in on South Dakota election process

Sioux Falls laywer Shawn Tornow addresses members of the Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Tom Pischke, Jordan Mason, Republican Rep. Tina Mulally and Republican Rep. Phil Jensen.
Lee Strubinger
Sioux Falls laywer Shawn Tornow addresses members of the Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Tom Pischke, Jordan Mason, Republican Rep. Tina Mulally and Republican Rep. Phil Jensen.

There are new calls for an increase in election integrity in South Dakota. A circuit court judge continues to hear questions over whether county auditors should preserve data from the 2020 election.

The case spotlights a rift in the state’s Republican party. Some, like Gov. Kristi Noem, call for more transparency – while other Republican leaders say county auditors and election workers run safe and secure elections.

"All aspects of state and local government in South Dakota would do well to conduct our elections in a transparent fashion," Noem said in a letter on August 29. "My team is actively researching potential legislation for the upcoming legislative session that will further guarantee free and fair elections in South Dakota."

Gov. Noem’s call for election transparency, focused some attention on a recent informational hearing at the capitol. The event had nothing to do with state legislative business, and was sponsored by the Freedom Caucus. It’s a group born from the conservative wing of the state’s Republican party.

The Freedom Caucus invited county auditors from across the state. About 50 people attended.

Rep. Tina Mulalley, R-Rapid City, is the secretary and treasurer for the Freedom Caucus.

She said the group wants to learn more about an issue brought to them by citizens.

“We learned that most of us are on the same page. We all feel it necessary for free, fair, transparent elections. I think we realized that the playbook is different for each of us," she said.

Mulalley said she feels that elections in South Dakota are free and fair. However, she said she has an issue with transparency.

“Our point is that citizens should feel comfortable they’re transparent,” Mulalley said.

One of the organizations pushing for election reform is South Dakota Canvassing Group.

The group got its start following a virtual symposium held in Sioux Falls last summer.

The event was organized by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump.

A federal judge has thrown out a what the court called Lindell’s frivolous lawsuit based on groundless claims over election rigging in the 2020 presidential election. Lindell must now pay legal fees and costs for the proceeding.

Jessica Pollema is with South Dakota Canvassing Group. She said citizens from all corners of the state are voicing concerns about transparency in government.

“The Freedom Caucus decided that was an issue as well and brought that to the governor and they had this meeting,” Pollema said. “It is an issue across the state that all citizens seem to be concerned about.”

Attendees for the Freedom Caucus informational hearing about elections.
Lee Strubinger
Attendees for the Freedom Caucus informational hearing about elections.

In an interview with Pollema after the hearing, our conversation was cut short. Rick Weible, who’s head of Midwest Swamp Watch, stepped in.

Weible and Pollema chose to end our interview saying they wanted to be cautious because of “some things that have happened.” They would not elaborate.

Recently, Circuit Court Judge John Pekas, ruled that South Dakota’s County Auditors must preserve logs from automatic tabulation machines from the 2020 presidential election.

However, the judge has since vacated that order and scheduled a hearing next week at the Minnehaha County Courthouse.

That case was brought by a nonprofit group called We The People for Free, Fair and Transparent Elections, LLC.

According to secretary of state filings, the group includes Jessica Pollema and Rick Weible.

Weible was a former mayor in Minnesota, and also involved in the Minnesota GOP.

Pollema’s group bases its unproven allegations of South Dakota election fraud from the results in two races. They claim the numbers from two 2022 primary elections look similar county by county.

During the informational hearing at the capitol, attendees shared three main concerns about the election process. Skepticism about vote tabulating machines, residency requirements and access to what’s called Cast Vote Records, or CVRs.

Those records come in a text or excel sheet, with information about each ballot in the order they are processed.

Pollema’s group, SD Canvassing, said people should submit public records requests to their county auditor for those election records.

But not all counties have the cast vote records. In fact, county auditors across the state say they are only used in four counties.

Deb Halverson, the Lyman County auditor, said they do not have such voting records.

Halverson said state elections are secure.

“As someone who has worked in elections in the state of South Dakota, I can confidently say that I have a deep seeded respect for all election officials in South Dakota. I do believe that the security and safety of your vote in South Dakota is extremely high," she said.

Halverson said the national rhetoric surrounding unproven allegations of election fraud is coming down on county auditors.

“There’s twenty of them and they all speak to each other," said Lee Schoenbeck, a Republican state Senator from Watertown who leads the Senate. “I can tell you that if you go out and walk down the main street of Watertown and talk to the first 100 people that you see there isn’t one of them that will tell you they’re concerned about election fraud in South Dakota, not one.”

Schoenbeck said local election workers are neighbors, family and friends.

“They’re honest people who volunteered to do this work," Schoenbeck said. "People who are calling them cheats should be spanked.”

Schoenbeck said he’s happy with South Dakota’s election process and outcome. Republicans hold every statewide office and supermajorities in each legislative chamber.

Secretary of State Steve Barnett declined to comment for this story. He was recently unseated as the Republican candidate for Secretary of State in the upcoming election.

The Republican nominee—Monae Johnson—is running on an election integrity platform.

Most Democrats in South Dakota believe elections are conducted fairly.

Jamie Smith is the minority leader in the South Dakota House. He opposed a bill earlier this year requiring forensic audits of presidential election results. Smith called the bill a partisan attack.

“I have confidence in the state of South Dakota to run a good election and you know what? I’m sitting here with 8 people in my caucus,” Smith said in February. “I’m sitting here with eight people in my caucus and I’m not saying it wasn’t a fair election. I’m saying it was a fair election.”

Smith said if things look out of line and need auditing, that’s one thing. He said he’s never been shown evidence to suggest that was necessary.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.