[¶ 1.] Local residents of Watertown filed an election contest based on allegations of perceived voting irregularities. The trial court held the election valid and declined to order a new election. We affirm.
[¶ 2.] On August 2, 1999, the Watertown City Council approved an ordinance, which would rezone a portion of the city from residential to commercial. The City Council also passed a resolution, which would vacate a portion of a city street. The ordinance and resolution were passed at the request of Prairie Lakes Health Care System in order for it to expand its main campus. Certain local residents (Contestants) objected to the changes and sought to bring the rezoning issues to a special election. After obtaining the requisite
[¶ 3.] A special election took place on October 26, 1999, and was held at the Civic Arena. The voters approved both referendums. After a recount, final numbers showed that the resolution was approved 1,739 to 1,679, a difference of 60 votes, and the ordinance was approved 1,711 to 1,677, a difference of 34 votes.
[¶ 4.] Contestants brought suit contesting the election results under SDCL ch. 12-22. After hearing Contestants' allegations of voting irregularities, including affidavits from 104 potential voters who did not vote because of long lines, the circuit court found that the election "resulted in a free and fair expression of the will of the voters," and denied Contestants a new election. Contestants appeal, raising the follow issue:
STANDARD OF REVIEW
[¶ 5.] "In an election contest this court must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law and can only reverse the trial court's judgment if it is clearly erroneous." Larson v. Locken, 262 N.W.2d 752, 755 (S.D. 1978). Thus, we review only the sufficiency of the trial court's findings and whether those findings are in clear error.
[¶ 6.] The thrust of Contestants' argument is that the lines leading to the voting registration table were too long and there was inadequate parking. The trial court heard evidence that some potential voters had waited to vote between forty-five minutes and an hour and a half. The court also heard testimony that some potential voters had gone to the voting area a few times during the day only to find the voting lines to be same or of greater length. The record reflects that those in line at the 7 p.m. polling closing time were allowed to vote, and after 7 p.m. over four hundred residents voted until the last in line voted at approximately 8:30 p.m. The record also reflects that some potential voters had to park a block and a half from the polling area.
[¶ 7.] The purpose of an election contest is to challenge "the election process itself." Larson, 262 N.W.2d at 753, n. 1. The basic question in an election contest is whether the election, despite irregularities, resulted in a free and fair expression of the will of the voters. Id. (citing Green v. Ind. Consol. School Dist. No. 1, 252 Minn. 36, 89 N.W.2d 12 (Minn 1958)). Therefore, Contestants must show not only voting irregularities, but also show those irregularities to be so egregious that the will of the voters was suppressed.
[¶ 8.] Contestants have not pointed to one voting statute or ordinance that City has violated in conducting this special election. The trial court rejected the argument, as do we, that SDCL 12-14-4 applies to the case at hand. SDCL 12-14-4 provides:
This statute makes it clear that the legislature expressly permits the City to use one polling place and one election board. This Court fails to see how long lines or inadequate parking equate to voting irregularities to the level of not being a "free and fair expression of the people." Mere inconvenience or delay in voting is not enough to overturn an election. Without proof of a violation of state or local election law, there is no showing that the trial court's findings are clearly erroneous.
[¶ 9.] It is also true that before we conduct a "but for" analysis to determine whether the election outcome may have been different had those "disinfranchised" been able to vote, Contestants must show, as a prerequisite, that voting irregularities exist.
[¶ 10.] Therefore, we affirm.