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County auditors voice relief at hand-count measure results

Kent Osborne

All of South Dakota will use machines to count paper ballots in the 2024 general election.

That’s the verdict after voters in three counties killed local efforts to switch to hand-counted ballots. Despite concerns from activists, election officials say voting machines have consistently been shown to be both reliable and safe.

Voters in Gregory, Tripp and Haakon Counties have spoken – tallies will take place via machine for the general election this year.

For Tripp and Todd County auditor Barb Desersa, who lived through a hand-count in 2022, it’s a relief.

“I’m glad everybody took the time to come out and vote," Desersa said. "Just come watch the process. Last (Tuesday) night was the first time we’ve ever had anybody come watch us do the machine. When we did the testing, we actually had quite a roomful of people which is the very first time as well. So, take the time to understand the facts.”

Reflecting on that last vote, Desersa said the jury is back on these machines.

“We proved that the machine was correct, so people were listening and, again, took the time to vote on the measure," Desersa said. "With us doing the 100% post-election audit as well, we should be able to prove it one more time. I think people are getting tired of hearing all the negativity when they can see first-hand that’s not true.”

What’s more, she says hand-counting had a real impact on the morale of already hard-to-find election workers.

“Those that I did call to work on the election this time said, ‘do we have to hand-count?’ and I said no, and they said ‘good, then I’ll do it.’ They were dreading what was going to start after the polls closed," Desersa said. "Oh yeah, it was a definite difference. You bet. Once we found out they voted against the hand-count, it was just like a weight was lifted off your shoulders.”

In Haakon County, auditor Stacy Pinney isn’t convinced hand-counts are more accurate anyway.

“It’s just the human errors," Pinney said. "We did several demonstrations – I had one of my public town hall meetings do some hand counting. I had some fellow office personnel do some hand counting. In every instance there were errors. So, I’m not confident in the process if it were to be on election night.”

Pinney reminded the public the tabulation process is always bipartisan.

“On election night, I have a group of people – one Democrat two Republicans – and they fed the ballots into the machine, and there were several the machine rejected because either unreadable marks or it was a blank ballot," Pinney said. "So, those were all given to the resolution board to make the determination on how to handle that ballot.”

Considering all the tension in the lives of auditors in this era, Pinney said there are ways to ensure a useful dialogue – getting involved.

“If people are concerned, they need to seek out their county officials and ask the questions and not come at them in a harassing way,” Pinney said.

That sentiment was echoed of Gregory County auditor Julie Bartling, who said the machines are both reliable and safe.

"As a group of auditors, we are just doing our job and we’re doing it in accordance with how we are taught – following statute," Bartling said. “We take a great deal of pride in the work that we do day in and day out, certainly with elections, because that’s so clearly important to each and every voter.”

Bartling walked through the specifics of the machines used to tally votes.

“They are not connected to the internet, and they cannot be connected to the internet by statute – that is in state law," Bartling said. "So, on election night once the precincts start rolling into our central counting center, we count each precinct as they come in. Once the ballots are counted, we receive a tape that indicates the number of ballots cast. We must balance that with what our precinct officials tell us they had for voted ballots. It then produces a count, and we verify all of that.”

There was a concern about how these devices are programmed. While South Dakota Canvassing – the group behind many efforts within the state to hand count – did not return request for comment, at a recent Board of Elections meeting, group organizer Rick Weible aired unfounded security concerns.

“When we brought evidence these systems are not secure, it seemed like you could care less, even though I watched the Sioux Falls city election take a thumb drive back and forth this year between an EMS reporting system and an internet-connected machine,” Weible said.

In response, Bartling said this reflects a lack of understanding of the mechanics of the system.

“It’s a thumb drive, I call them media sticks, because they actually have on it the names of the candidates and what races is going to be on the ballot for the election you’re working on," Bartling said. "Once all the races are set for a primary and/or general, those media sticks stay in control of the county auditor.”

Bartling said voters should feel comfortable bringing their concerns directly to those closest to local elections.

“Personally, I just want the voters not only of Gregory County, but all across the state of South Dakota to feel confident and have confidence in their auditors and the work that they do," Bartling said. "We work as a team because we need to. We all follow the same state election laws. Our doors are always open, I hope they would have faith and trust – continue to ask questions if you don’t. We hope people will chime in and come visit us. Let’s all work together on this.”

The measures fell well short of passing in each county. The closest vote was in Gregory County, where it failed by eight percentage points.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture