Jell-O and poor judgment: Election deniers for election officials in South Dakota

Election deniers could soon be in charge of election oversight in Minnehaha County and the entire state of South Dakota.

In the South Dakota Secretary of State and Minnehaha County auditor races, right-wing extremists who refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2020 election are running as the GOP candidates. Both Monae Johnson, who is seeking the statewide SoS office, and Leah Anderson, who wants to run elections in South Dakota's most populous county, unseated moderate Republican incumbents who generally kept their heads down and did their work without fanfare.

Johnson whipped support among a fresh crop of zealous delegates to the state GOP convention with a message of "election integrity" - fringe-speak for "the 2020 election was stolen." Anderson did the same in the Republican primary.

These two are part of a nationwide effort to put believers of "the Big Lie" into positions of ultimate responsibility for our elections. The goals, as exemplified on the website for the America First Secretary of State Coalition, are a template for voter suppression and disenfranchisement:

  • Hand-counting ballots

  • Eliminating mail-in ballots

  • Single-day voting

  • Aggressive voter-roll cleanup

  • No-exception voter ID requirements

  • No ballot drop boxes

  • Unfettered "poll watch" reforms

Conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs abound among these candidates. That COVID is a bioweapon used to support regime change. That a "color revolution" was executed in the United States and is in the final stages right now. That they are combatants in a "spiritual war". Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, whom South Dakota governor Kristi Noem stumped for in Arizona shortly after a reported back surgery, is listed as a coalition candidate.

Johnson and Anderson seem at least somewhat aware that their beliefs are not widely held among most voters. Johnson first ran on an "election integrity" platform, scrubbed the phrase from her website after her convention upset, then flipped again and returned to making it her campaign centerpiece. Anderson has been more steadfast, but despite vows of "transparency", both refuse to say outright that the 2020 election was legitimate - or that they believe it wasn't.

South Dakota Searchlight's Editor-in-Chief, award-winning journalist Seth Tupper, said interviewing Johnson about the 2020 election was like "nailing Jell-O to a tree":

"Getting a direct answer on the 2020 election proved impossible. All the while, Johnson seemed unaware of the contradiction inherent in her own non-answers: She was touting her devotion to transparency, even as she refused to answer questions she didn't like." - Seth Tupper, South Dakota Searchlight

Both Johnson and Anderson are growing more reluctant to face the scrutiny of journalists as the campaign season grinds closer to its end. Twice when interviews of both Secretary of State candidates were scheduled with top local media outlets, Johnson asked to reschedule due to "illness". Most recently, a person working on Johnson's campaign berated former Argus Leader and current Dakota Scout reporter Jonathan Ellis for asking for an interview within a short timeframe.

Actual transparency for elected officials doesn't mean freezing like a deer in headlights then begging off to a later date so you have more time to prep how you'll hedge your answers. As Tupper noted in his South Dakota Searchlight piece,

"South Dakota voters are stuck wondering whether Johnson is hiding moderate views from extreme voters, or extreme views from moderate voters." - Seth Tupper, South Dakota Searchlight

The safe bet is on the latter, given Johnson's state leadership role in an international organization that also carefully couches its public language regarding politics.

Nor is transparency refusing to respond to news outlets unless it's on your own terms. Leah Anderson, who is running for Minnehaha County Auditor against Certified Financial Crimes Specialist Brian Wirth, who has 15 years of fraud investigation experience, has declined multiple KELOLAND interview requests. While Wirth faced cameras with straightforward answers, Anderson dodged and weaved in email answers to KELOLAND reporters' questions about the 2020 election's legitimacy.

Anderson's cagey responses echo Johnson's performance in a KELOLAND story including interviews with both Secretary of State candidates. Asked multiple times if she acknowledged that the results of the 2020 presidential election were legitimate, Johnson danced around the question, finally saying simply "I'm not going to acknowledge that, so, thank you."

"This question has nothing to do with the position of the Minnehaha Auditor," Anderson said via email to KELOLAND's questions. "My opinion about the 2020 election has nothing to do with how well I can perform the job that I would be elected to."

There's the rub: Their opinions about the 2020 election have everything to do with how well Monae Johnson and Leah Anderson can perform the jobs that they would be elected to.

Someone who refuses to take into account reams of decisive evidence debunking widespread election and voter fraud in 2020 - the Big Lie - because they didn't like the results, and who have internalized disproven disinformation uncritically, cannot be trusted to certify election results that conflict with the results they prefer.

If South Dakota voters approved Medicaid expansion and these candidates were in charge of elections, could we expect endless and costly investigations into ginned-up claims of fraud?

What if South Dakotans decided again that they won't tolerate exceptionless abortion bans, as they have twice in less than twenty years? Or chose to legalize recreational cannabis with Johnson and Anderson in charge? Could voters expect their will to be overturned yet again, this time by the officials in charge of the ballots instead of state legislators or the governor?

These races are a choice between conspiracy theories and cool heads, between wild goose chases and clear-eyed competence. To maintain trust in South Dakota elections, there is only one choice: deny the deniers.

Vote Tom Cool for South Dakota Secretary of State

Vote Brian Wirth for Minnehaha County Auditor

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