From a broader perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic threatening our nation, the question of whether to postpone a local city council election looks like small potatoes. Same goes for the rapidly approaching deadline for legislative candidates to submit their nominating petitions. Most would say there are more pressing matters to worry about.
The logistical challenges we face in the months ahead are indeed immense. The early lack of testing kits and the means to process them has hindered our capacity to base public health efforts on accurate counts of novel coronavirus cases, whether in South Dakota or the entire United States. We watch Italy and see how things might play out here, a society and its systems overwhelmed, a sluggish national response limiting the ability to “flatten the curve.”
Given the depth of apprehension about our future, it is imperative that we be able to trust in the integrity of our elections. The last thing a restive population already under a heavy cloud of uncertainty needs is to doubt whether our representatives have gained – or maintained – their positions fairly.
The Sioux Falls City Council election is scheduled for April 14, just a few weeks away. In separate letters to Gov. Kristi Noem, council chair Marshall Sellberg and city clerk Tom Greco urged the governor to delay the local election until the June 2 state primary date. Greco pointed out that at least 80 percent of poll workers are above age 80, putting them at high risk during the coronavirus crisis.
Councilor Christine Erickson also questioned how the traditional Election Day process would work.
“How can we justify telling everyone to stay home – but don’t forget to vote?” she asked.
It’s a perfectly reasonable question that needs to be answered soon.
Some precinct locations have already been pulled from the list of polling places, including a retirement community and a fire station. It’s unthinkable that we should follow our traditional in-person voting paradigm when everything experts know about COVID-19 indicates that we would likely be putting our community at risk.
We don’t want to experience the kind of last-minute electoral chaos seen in Ohio last week, where disputes between the governor and courts kept the status of the state’s presidential primary election in limbo until just before polls were set to open. Though some states went ahead with their in-person primaries, others have opted to postpone.
The federal government, like the city of Sioux Falls, has limited the size of public gatherings. Crafting a sensibly planned alternative to in-person polls as we approach a period of ramped-up virus transmission seems the most prudent course. Sioux Falls voters can cast absentee ballots in the council election beginning March 30. If mailing in is to be the only way they can vote, the groundwork needs to be laid without delay.
South Dakota Secretary of State Steven Barnett has said that state law does not allow election dates to be changed. That message seemed to contradict what Noem said a day earlier: that there have been conversations about suspending or delaying the election through emergency legislation when lawmakers return to Pierre for veto day, if that doesn’t itself get delayed.
House Majority Leader Lee Qualm told the Argus Leader that the legislature isn’t planning to make any changes to either the deadline for nominating petitions or the June 2 primary date. That presents a potentially dangerous hurdle for state legislative candidates gathering the necessary number of signatures to be on the ballot, as well as for potential Democratic challengers to U.S. Senator Mike Rounds and U.S. Congressman Dusty Johnson.
There are examples we could follow regarding nominating petitions and COVID-19. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that cut the number of required signatures for primary ballot qualification by 70% and suspended the candidate petition process. The leader of the New York Republican Party endorsed the Democratic governor’s order, explicitly setting aside partisanship in the interest of public health.
Individual states dictate the way elections happen within their borders, even those at the federal level. How effectively – and honorably – smaller elections are dealt with in this time defined by a new contagion will signal to voters how effectively and honorably they can expect November’s general election to be administered.
Every challenge, even a generational one like COVID-19, presents opportunities to improve upon what came before. We urge South Dakota’s political leaders to resist their hardwired intransigence and commit to shepherding us through these trials with forethought, soberness and flexibility.
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