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AG wants prosecution power in election law

Lege SB 47 illustration 01-19-23.jpg
Sen. David Wheeler (left) and Attorney General Marty Jackley

The South Dakota Attorney General has sponsored five bills this year, kicked off with testimony on Thursday, Jan. 19, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two bills were deferred for more work, one was postponed, and one passed without opposition.

But Senate Bill 47, affecting election law, drew criticism from one senator who said it was too broad and might have unintended consequences.

Currently certain actions are prohibited by state law, but there are no penalties for violations. There is a statute that says in those cases, violations are deemed to be Class 2 misdemeanors, but it does not apply to election statutes and several other titles.

Attorney General Marty Jackley has introduced Senate Bill 47 to remove election laws from exception.

“We are just simply asking for that slight change to allow us to be able to prosecute crimes that the legislature has already said that are crimes, but we just don’t have an enforcement power,” he said.

Jackley said some offenses, such as a public official using taxpayer dollars to influence an election or the submission of false absentee ballots in the name of unregistered or deceased people, deserve more than a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“I think this was a giant step to get it enforceable at this point,” he said. “I would not rule out bringing perhaps isolated bills on those two instances to make those felonies.”

Senate Bill 47 applies to Title 12, made up of 27 chapters covering issues such as campaign finance requirements, vote counts and recounts, primary elections, voter registration, and duties of the State Board of Elections, county auditors, and the Secretary of State.

Sen. David Wheeler voted against the bill. He said he likes the idea of putting teeth in election law, but SB 47 is too broad and could result in criminal charges for workers doing their jobs.

“I think the reason why Title 12 is currently excepted is because so much of it is administrative,” Wheeler said. “And they’re saying ‘you may not do this, you may do this’ because it’s trying to tell clerks or auditors and people who are handling petition matters what you should do and shouldn’t do, but not necessarily meant to criminalize that conduct.”

Also voting against the bill was Sen. Michael Rohl.

Four senators voted yes, and the bill now goes to the full Senate.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.