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South Dakota SoS Steps in to Help After Death of County Election Official

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McPherson-Co-Courthouse.jpg

[Image courtesy of McPherson County]

This blog often describes friction between state and local election officials. Today's story, however (courtesy of electionlineWeekly's Mindy Moretti) is an example of how the two levels of government work together in a time of need - in this case, a death in the election family. Thanks, Mindy!

Also a programming note: the blog will not publish on Memorial Day - see you back here on Tuesday, May 29 - DMCj

The residents of rural McPherson County, S.D. -- where there's a square mile of land for every three people -- knew Steve Serr in a variety of ways.

Some knew him as the voice behind the Eureka Lakeside Ballpark, some knew him through the church choirs he directed and some knew him through the Long Lake Community Band that he also directed.

But where all of McPherson's 18-and over population knew Serr from was the county's auditor office. For almost 30 years, Serr oversaw the elections in this county of about 2,500.

Serr died unexpectedly on Saturday May 5. He was 64.

Now, not only is this small community coming to grips with losing a lifelong friend, they are also moving forward and making plans for the June 5 primary election.

"Elections were Steve's favorite part of the auditor's position," said Jenny Guthmiller, who was appointed auditor following Serr's death. "He enjoyed preparing the ballots, testing the equipment, and traveling to the different polling sites the day of the election."

As a result of Serr's death, the McPherson County Commission invoked South Dakota Law 12-18-41 and requested that the secretary of state's office conduct the June primary.

"Clearly, we are only asked to take a direct hand to ensure the election takes place in an emergency, as we have the utmost confidence in the competence and professionalism of South Dakota's county auditors," South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant said. "Unfortunately, this is one of those rare situations. Mr. Serr's passing leaves a void, and we all must pitch in and ensure that nothing impedes our ability to conduct the election."

Senate Bill 130 was signed into law in 2011, and states "If the person charged with the conduct of an election and the governing board determine that an election cannot be conducted, the person charged with the conduct of an election shall sign a declaration of emergency and deliver it to the Secretary of State prior to the election." 

"In the recent years preceding the introduction of this law, we had instances where a county courthouse burned down, a school literally exploded from natural gas, and a county who was supervising an unorganized county's election, indicated they might refuse to continue to do so," Gant explained.

He said that in no case were there any provisions on how  - if an election were to be held on that day - to conduct the election.

"It was a glaring error, and could serve to prevent people from voting," Gant said.

According to Gant, this is the first time that the law has been used since going into effect.

Guthmiller, who is new to elections, said the office is continuing on with its day -to-day duties and that other county offices and the secretary of state's office have been helpful.

"The Secretary of State has been very helpful with the election. They have been out to our site twice and have helped me get everything prepared for election day," Guthmiller said. "They have helped me with getting poll workers lined up, election school date and time set, and everything ready for the poll workers for election day."

But more than the secretary of state's office, more than her colleagues in the county, there is one person who has helped Guthmiller get ready for the June 5 primary more than any other.

"Everything in McPherson County is going very good with the election, and we are well prepared for election day," said Guthmiller. "Steve was very well prepared for the election and he had a lot of the preparation work done for the election before he passed away."

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