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U.S. House Congressional candidate and Mitchell resident Dusty Johnson, second from left, takes his ballot to a voting booth to cast his absentee ballot on Thursday at the Davison County Courthouse in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

S.D. Board of Elections pushes forward online registration, updated voting equipment for 2020

PIERRE, S.D. — With 15 months to go before the 2020 general election, South Dakota elections officers are already looking to ramp up election security and make voter registration more accessible in the Mount Rushmore state.

The Secretary of State Office's Board of Elections met on Tuesday, Aug. 13, to discuss plans to update ballot machines throughout the state, as well as proposed election-related legislation for the 2020 legislative session.

The board approved four bills to be recommended to the Legislature for consideration during 2020's legislative session, which will begin in January and end in March. One bill would amend the state's voter registration statute to allow for online voter registration, as provided by the Secretary of State's Office.

If passed and signed into law, the bill could allow for online voter registration in time for 2020's election. In order to register online, South Dakotans would need to have a valid driver's license or state ID, which the board said would be required to verify identity. If a resident does not have a valid ID, he or should would have to register in-person, as voters currently do.

The board also approved a bill to be considered by the Legislature that would remove voters' birth year from a publicly available master registration file, citing privacy concerns. Such master registration files are often purchased by political strategists and interest groups in order to identify trends in voters' age, political affiliation, geography and more.

Per the board, the Department of Homeland Security recommended the change in order to better protect South Dakotans from potential identity theft.

A separate, confidential master registration file is kept by election auditors, which the board said could be used if a voting dispute arises. For instance, if two John Smiths live at the same address, and one votes on the morning of election day, a poll worker could call the auditor to verify that the second Smith has not already voted.

Additionally, the board approved a plan to update voting equipment in 36 counties in time for 2020's election, thanks to a $3 million federal grant. The state's remaining 30 counties already purchased updated equipment last year, so the upcoming purchase will bring all 66 counties up to date.

Grant dollars left over after this year's purchase will go toward reimbursing counties who paid for new equipment in 2018, the board said when they approved the plan.