South Dakota’s new secretary of state, Monae Johnson, ran on a platform of making voting safe in the state.
With that argument, she was able to get 65% of the vote, easily defeating her Democratic opponent, Tom Cool, who had based his campaign on voters’ fears that Johnson was an “election denier.”
She received support from a well-known election conspiracy theorist in Minnesota, Rick Weible, and is one of just a handful of election denialists to gain statewide office in a midterm election. Since 2020, the former mayor of a tiny town in Minnesota has played a pivotal role in propagating rumors of a widespread electoral conspiracy.
Johnson has not said whether she believes the 2020 election was stolen or not, but her recommendations for revisions to South Dakota’s election legislation are in line with those of right-wing election doubters. Precinct-by-precinct audits and a drive at the state level to have votes counted by hand are examples of the kind of adjustments that may be made. Additionally, she recommends that legislators think about outlawing tabulator devices.
The departing secretary of state and the county auditor who oversaw the last entirely hand-counted election over two decades ago are just two of many election officials throughout the state who are concerned that such changes will complicate counting and make it less reliable.
Pennington County’s former auditor, Julie Pearson, who managed the switch from manual counting to tabulation, stated, “You’d never get an accurate count.” And then there’s the time factor. In a minute, I’d estimate that our scanners can process 200 votes.
Johnson has her election credentials and is now officially in office. She has extensive experience in the department she will lead come January, having worked there for more than eight years. She felt the importance of customer service firsthand while working at the secretary of state’s office. Johnson acknowledged that Steve Barnett, her predecessor, did a great job in this area, but she emphasized that there are significant changes.
In contrast, Johnson said, “the key difference is that the secretary of state (Barnett) was pushing it his entire four years” in regard to online voter registration and updates, online voting, and the prevention of voter fraud. In his most recent bill, he included a feature that allowed users already registered with the system to easily change their contact information.
According to Barnett, voters in the state cannot update their information on the state’s online voting system. A legitimate state ID and Social Security card would have been needed to make any changes under the legislation he presented, which ultimately failed to pass.
Distrust of Technology
Voter fraud fears relating to tabulators have been openly dismissed by Barnett. Yet Johnson claims that other “very skilled experts” share her worries about the accuracy of voting tabulator equipment and online voter updates.
A lot of individuals reached out to me saying ‘no’ because ‘anything can be hacked,'” Johnson said. I think it sums up the situation well. People in the IT industry and the military were the ones that reached out to me.
Campaign manager Gretchen Weible identified the IT and military sources that voiced Johnson’s concerns: Mainly her ex-mayor spouse Rick Weible of St. Bonifacius, Minnesota, who crisscrossed the state in the run-up to the elections, filming and posting films in which he claimed election fraud and advocated for reforms to voting methods, hardware, and software. At Johnson’s victory speech on election night in central Sioux Falls, the Weibles were in the audience.
As mayor, Rick Weible claims he saw firsthand the problems with automated vote tallies, which prompted him to become involved in the fight to ensure the fairness of elections.
Weible said that every election was “off by one to two votes.”
However, tabulators were useful in post-election audits, according to Weible.
Johnson’s team also brought up South Dakota Canvassing’s Jessia Pollema, who works to ban the use of technology in voting there.
Barnett claims that the group advocating for election integrity is misinformed about what “the machines” in dispute are and do.
Whether it has a modem or not, “these individuals assume everything that can be put into an outlet can be hacked,” he added.
Johnson said that although the state utilizes paper ballots and requires voter ID, these measures may be strengthened. In particular, she wants to institute a review of the election results. There is a post-election audit in all but five states, however, its specific forms vary widely.
In March, the Reformer reported on a demonstration for election reform that Rick Weible spoke at, noting that just 3% of precincts in that state do hand counts after every election. To ensure accuracy, representatives from both sides will be present during the counts.
The state’s machine-run results in the 2020 election in Minnesota were verified by an audit of 400,000 ballots.
The newly elected Secretary of State Johnson has requested that auditors in each county manually count a random sample of ballots cast in each precinct to verify the accuracy of the tabulator machines.
Also, “if the hand count is the same, your precinct is set to go,” Johnson said.
Manual Tally of Votes
Johnson has said that she would recommend against the use of tabulators at the county level if it were up to the county auditors to make that decision. To eliminate the need for tabulators, the legislation would be required.
‘I know there are a lot of individuals who would prefer all the equipment gone,’ Johnson remarked.
There was an attempt to hand-count votes in one South Dakota county on Election Day. For the first time in over 20 years, Tripp County, South Dakota tried holding a midterm election.
Tripp County’s volunteer counting boards occasionally had to recount votes three or four times on election night because of close contests. Even during the post-election audit, 75 votes went “lost” in one precinct.
Voting tabulators, which are disliked by Johnson and the Tripp County commissioners, were responsible for explaining the discrepancy.
Tripp County Auditor Barb Desersa said, “It’s been a nightmare,” to South Dakota Searchlight the day after the election. “It seems obvious to me (that the machine is more accurate), but I know there are others who disagree and raise doubts about this.”
According to Rick Weible, a consultant for Johnson, the problem in Tripp County was not the hand-counting of votes, but rather, fatigue among those who performed the task. He believes that fatigue-related issues might be mitigated by establishing a more refined procedure for hand counts.
The process in South Dakota is “awful,” Weible added. Many shifts will be required.
Pennington County’s roughly 46,000 votes cast in the 2022 general election prove why manual recounts are impractical in bigger counties, according to Auditor Cindy Mohler.
For the 2019 legislative session, Mohler anticipates the introduction of election integrity legislation, but she hopes lawmakers will seek out and listen to officials like her.
You should consult with your county auditors since they are the ones who deal with this issue daily. I think the legislation will affect the job they conduct,” Mohler said.
Ben Kyte, Minnehaha County’s auditor, shared Mohler’s apprehensions about replacing tabulators.
Kyte remarked that this might provide difficulties. More than 75,000 votes were cast. For me, the reliability of hand counting is questionable.
According to Rick Weible, even in bigger counties, the division of precincts makes it possible to tally votes by hand.
An auditor who has worked with hand counts has faith in the tabulators
Pennington County, under the direction of former Auditor Julie Pearson, made the switch from manual counting to tabulator counting in 2004.
If you want an exact count, use a machine, not your eyes, as Pearson put it. This is going to cause them to get disoriented. How can you not lose track of where you are when all you’re doing is doing small sticks (to maintain count), like one two, three four, five?
She argued that a pre-election audit was already available under South Dakota’s present system. According to Pearson, the tabulators are tested using a foot-tall stack of sample ballots that have already been filled out before an election.
On election night, “we are obligated to run the test deck through each machine,” Pearson said. Furthermore, all of our devices are safe. There is no means to go inside the auditor’s office. There should be no entry. The only people who are allowed to handle our ballots after voting has begun are deputy auditors and law enforcement officials.
Pearson feels Johnson’s motivations are good but disagrees with her policy recommendations.
No matter what you think of her, Pearson thinks it’s a good idea for South Dakota’s new secretary of state to investigate the whole electoral process. “That’s basically what they are paid to do.”
Johnson has said that she does not want to create obstacles for voters. When asked about issues facing the state, she mentioned Native Americans’ access to the ballot box as a major concern.
Johnson has stated his intention to collaborate with indigenous communities. I am unsure whether any previous secretary of state has attempted to communicate with the indigenous communities. After taking the oath of office, it will be one of my top priorities.
Aside From Voting
Elections and official records in South Dakota are handled by the Secretary of State’s office. That’s another area where Johnson thinks there’s space for development.
She said that the state’s reporting on campaign finance expenditures should be easier to navigate. Reporters might “trace the money trail” with the aid of a searchable database.
Many news outlets have contacted me asking, “Can we search for a specific person’s name, like Monae Johnson, and immediately discover who Monae gave to?” That particular search is now unavailable.