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Federal judge dismisses SD early voting lawsuit

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PIERRE (AP) -- A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to ensure that residents of part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have the same access to early voting as people in other South Dakota counties.

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U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier dismissed the lawsuit after finding that state and local officials have agreed to provide an in-person absentee voting station in Shannon County for the 2014, 2016 and 2018 election cycles.

The judge said she couldn't proceed to consider the case because no one knows whether election laws or other conditions will change after the 2018 election.

Shannon County, which is part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has no courthouse, and it contracts with nearby Fall River County for some services, including elections. Twenty-five residents of Shannon County filed a lawsuit in early 2012 seeking to get the same 46 days of early voting as residents of other counties. Without a voting station in Shannon County, county residents would have had to travel nearly an hour or more to cast in-person absentee ballots at the Fall River County courthouse.

After the lawsuit was filed, state and local officials set up an in-person absentee voting station in Pine Ridge village for last year's primary and general election. Those officials later pledged to use federal voting assistance funds to operate an early voting station in Pine Ridge through the 2018 election.

Those who filed the lawsuit criticized the judge's dismissal of their case, saying there is no guarantee that early voting will be offered in Pine Ridge after 2018. They sought a court order permanently ordering the state to provide early voting in Shannon County.

But Schreier noted that no one knows whether election laws will change by 2020, whether federal funding will continue to be available for the early voting station, or whether Shannon County will continue contracting with Fall River County for election services. In addition, there is no substantial proof of impending harm to Shannon County voters, she said.

"For the court to adjudicate this claim now would amount to an advisory opinion based on assumptions and speculation," Schreier wrote.

Attorneys for the state and the Shannon County residents did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

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