South Dakota: What to expect on election night

It’s difficult to overstate how dominant Republicans have become in South Dakota. They have nearly doubled Democrats on voter rolls; the party holds 90% of the Legislature, and it’s been over a decade since a Democrat has won a statewide race.

In the Mount Rushmore state’s top race this November, Gov. Kristi Noem has used the election cycle to position for a potential 2024 White House bid. But Democratic state lawmaker Jamie Smith is trying to prove that he can break his party’s decline by winning the governor’s office, and gained some traction by criticizing her national political ambitions. Noem won the 2018 election by three percentage points -- a close margin in the heavily red state. And Smith is hoping election night is close again on Tuesday.

The pair of Republicans looking to return to Congress, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson, are expected to win by comfortable margins.

Thune, seeking his fourth term, had a large fundraising advantage over Democratic challenger Brian Bengs, an Air Force veteran and university professor. Thune is the second-ranking Senate Republican and is seen as a potential pick to succeed Sen. Mitch McConnell once he steps down from leadership.

Johnson’s path to a third term representing South Dakota’s lone House seat seemed assured with Democrats not fielding a candidate. Johnson faced Libertarian Collin Duprel. Only Libertarian Collin Duprel challenged Johnson.

Voters will also decide whether to legalize recreational pot for adults, as well as whether to expand eligibility for Medicaid. In other GOP-held states, both of those causes have found success through ballot initiatives.

One of the most interesting takeaways from election night could be a comparison of results between Noem, who has allied herself closely with former President Donald Trump, and Thune, who drew Trump’s ire for dismissing his election fraud claims.

Here’s a look at what to expect on election night:

ELECTION NIGHT

Polls close at 7 p.m. local time (8 p.m. ET). There are 17 counties in the western half of the state that are in the Mountain Time Zone (polls close at 9 p.m. ET). The AP will not call any races before the later polls close.

HOW SOUTH DAKOTA VOTES

Slightly more than half of South Dakota voters (51.5%) cast ballots by mail in the 2020 general election, double the amount in 2018.

Things happen quickly after the polls close (and they close an hour apart in this state that shares both Central and Mountain time zones). Returns from the total vote start showing soon after 9 p.m. ET, with 20% of the total usually public in less than an hour. Two years ago, all returns were reported by 2 a.m. ET – though it turned out that nearly 10% of the vote wasn’t actually counted until after Election Day. Most of that came from Minnehaha County, home to Sioux Falls and the biggest bloc of voters. A 2021 law now requires county auditors to sort and process absentee ballots prior to the close of polls on Election Day.

In a rural state that saw only nine counties cast more than 10,000 votes in the 2020 general election, the key strongholds other than Sioux Falls include Pennington County (home to Rapid City in the West River half of the state) along with Lincoln, Brown and Brookings counties. All five counties voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden two years ago in a state where registered Democrats are nearly outnumbered by conservative-leaning unaffiliated voters and both substantially trail Republicans

DECISION NOTES

AP will tabulate and declare winners in 50 contested races, including statewide races for U.S. Senate, U.S House, governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, lands commissioner, public utilities commissioner, 40 state Senate and state House races, and two statewide ballot issues.

There is a mandatory recount law but only for tie votes. Candidates can also seek recounts in statewide races if they trial by less than 0.25% of the total vote and there are also provisions allowing for potential recounts for ballot questions and legislative races.

The AP does not make projections and will only declare a winner when it’s determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap.

Should a candidate declare victory or offer a concession before the AP calls a race, we will cover newsworthy developments in our reporting. In doing so, we will make clear that the AP has not declared a winner and explain why.

The AP may call a statewide or U.S. House race in which the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5% or less, if we determine the lead is too large for a recount to change the outcome.

The AP will not call down-ballot races on election night if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 2% or if the leading candidate is within 2% of the 50% runoff threshold. AP will revisit those races later in the week to confirm there aren’t enough outstanding votes left to count that could change the outcome.

Q: WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?

A: If you like quirks in your politics, South Dakota is one of a handful of states where state House districts can be represented by more than one person. For example, voters could elect a Republican and a Democrat to represent them after choosing among multiple candidates with different affiliations. Multiple-winner districts, touted as one way to help ensure minority representation, are now relatively rare in the U.S.

Q: WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THE PRIMARY?

A: The top Republicans — Noem, Thune and Johnson — swept aside primary challengers with ease. Noem didn’t even mention her opponent in the general election, Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith, after locking up the nomination in June.

Q: WHAT DO TURNOUT AND ADVANCE VOTE LOOK LIKE IN SOUTH DAKOTA?

A: In the last midterm election (2018), turnout was 65% as some 341,000 voters cast ballots and the two ballot questions this year could attract interest. As of Oct. 28, 2022, there were nearly 600,000 active registered voters and nearly half of them (296,000) were Republicans. There were slightly more than 151,000 Democrats and some 145,000 unaffiliated voters. About 45,000 mail ballots had been sent and nearly 35,000 of them had been returned, dramatically lower than 2018 when 89,000 mail ballots were counted.

Q: HOW LONG DOES COUNTING USUALLY TAKE?

A: Not long in South Dakota. The state has a history of getting its ballots counted within four or five hours of the final poll close, even though some results are not final until the next day.

Q: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TUESDAY?

A: There is a mandatory recount law but it applies only in the very rare case of a tie vote. Recounts are possible in statewide races but only if the margin is less than 0.25% (one-fourth of 1%) of the total votes cast. State legislative races and other measures have different parameters.

READ UP ON THE RACES

Here’s more on the campaigns in South Dakota:

South Dakota’s Noem, Thune repel GOP challenges from right

Governor debate: Noem for abortion ban, Smith wants changes

Noem: No special legislative session for food tax repeal

Will South Dakota OK pot again after 1st measure reversed?

QUOTABLE

“I am absolutely running to be reelected and to serve four years as governor.” — Noem, when asked if she would commit to serving a full four-year term instead of running for president

“We need a leader that’s focused on the state of South Dakota, that’s working for the people and that truly cares about what’s best for the state." — Smith, her opponent

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Check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections.

Follow AP’s coverage of the elections at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

The Associated Press