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Republican factions vie for competing election changes


In more than 30 states, lawmakers have introduced more than 100 bills aimed at changing election laws. Many of the proposals would make it harder for people to register to vote or stay on the voter rolls.

In South Dakota, legislators are debating dozens of such measures, but the effort reveals a deep chasm within the state’s Republican party.

It all came to a head in a gathering of the Senate State Affairs committee. Sen. Julie Frye Mueller, R-Rapid City, had three election-related bills up for consideration.

One would prohibit voter registration by sworn affidavit. Another required a monthly purge of voter rolls. And a third demanding that the Secretary of State compare the voter registration database with other state departments to confirm voter identification.

Sen. Frye-Mueller was fresh from a very public censuring by fellow Republican colleagues. Each of her bills were rejected.

Fellow Republican State Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, from Watertown, led the effort to reject these bills. Schoenbeck, who said he is not running for reelection, has been a vocal critic of efforts to open up the state’s election data and information.

Schoenbeck said some bills place additional requirements on voter registration and identification. He said that might increase harassment at local election officials who are paid by property tax dollars.

“It’s their own version of their own reality. It’s clear our versions of reality don’t align at all."
Jessica Pollema, South Dakota Canvassing

“I have not had a single citizen come to me and say, ‘Can you find more ways to spend property tax dollars having local election officials do worthless things?’” Schoenbeck said.

Schoenbeck said some of his colleagues have gone too far.

“In this case, you have a group of half-a-dozen people that clearly have some kind of obsession or fetish. What they’re doing—this would give them the ability to take their little hobby—their obsession and fetish—and give papers to these county auditors all across South Dakota," Schoenbeck added. "Instead of working on South Dakota local issues the auditors are elected to do, they would be stuck trying to help these people with their fetish."

That exchange has generated outrage from those who question the integrity of the state's election process.

“It’s been an all our war on the grass roots and the conservatives in this party," said Jessica Pollema, the head of South Dakota Canvass.

During the Senate State Affairs committee meeting, Pollema said she has mountains of affidavits that show “honest to God” evidence of voter fraud and cheating in South Dakota elections.

The committee was not swayed.

“It’s clear our versions of reality don’t align at all," Pollema said on a YouTube channel called Dakota Leader, which focuses on conservative issues.

Pollema also asked for the Senate to censure Schoenbeck for his comments, as well as the Senate State Affairs committee chair.

That didn’t happen.

“That was clear evidence of lack of decorum by the Senate Pro Tempore and his clear distain and hate for our group and is more than willing to publicly slander us any time he gets a chance,” Pollema said.

The split in the Republican ranks over election legislation leaves some bills floundering, however several others are making their way through the process. Of 34 election-related bills, half have failed so far. The rest are still under consideration.

"They would be stuck trying to help these people with their fetish."
Senator Lee Schoenbeck

“South Dakota’s election system could be a model for the nation," said House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre. "That’s not to say there aren’t thinks we could improve on.”

Rep. Mortenson is working with other legislative leaders to advance bills that are part of a package called "Stronger and Safer for 2024."

Mortenson said legislative leaders worked closely with county auditors on bills designed to make the state’s elections run better.

“As I’ve seen election bills come through the legislature I think it’s prudent that those ideas are vetted by the folks who carry them out,” Mortenson said. “Those are the county auditors. Again, they are hard-working and honest folks. They want good, strong elections just like we do. When we work together, I think we come up with really good changes to our election system.”

Other proposals extend far beyond changes to the state’s election laws. Some want to change the process to nominate constitutional officers at the party level.

That comes following last year’s party convention where grass roots, ultra conservatives put up candidates that Republican party leaders did not support. More traditional candidates for Secretary of State, Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor had to fight for those positions.

One South Dakota political scientist said election-related bills are popular because of continuing unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

Mike Card is an emeritus professor at USD. He said that’s the case even in states Republicans won by a wide margin.

“If they don’t come together we may see a splintering of parties,” Card said.

He said that has led to some unusual coalitions at the state legislature. Republicans are so divided that —at times—the ‘super’ minority Democrats have an out-sized influence over whether bills pass.

“With roughly 50 percent of the voters being registered with the Republican party I don’t see anyone wanting to leave because you give up your majority,” Card said. “I suspect we will see these fights for a couple of years.”

In many states, lawmakers are debating proposals to restrict mail-in voting, impose stringent voter ID requirements and some measures even criminalize some election-related activities.

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.
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