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MERCER: Early-voting forces debate about access

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
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MERCER: Early-voting forces debate about access
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

PIERRE -- Want to vote early in the 2014 state and federal elections?


You can mail an application to your county auditor asking for an absentee ballot to be mailed to your home. Then, make your picks and mail the ballot back.

That seems simple enough.

You can also go to your county's courthouse and do it all there in person. That seems pretty simple, too.

So why do we have controversy about voting rights in South Dakota regarding early voting?

Because some people don't want to use the mail option and they don't want to drive, or get, rides as far as they currently do.

That was the reason why, in 2012, Secretary of State Jason Gant reached an accommodation to put an early-voting center in Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Shannon County is one of two unorganized counties in South Dakota (Todd County, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, is the other). Shannon County contracts with Fall River County for election services.

People naturally thought driving from Shannon County to Hot Springs was too far.

The presumption, then, seems to be that a county should have an early-voting center, even when it doesn't operate a courthouse or run its own elections.

In the Shannon County case, Gant used federal funds under the Help America Vote Act to pay for the early-voting center.

He pledged funding through the 2018 elections for the center, at total cost up to $111,000.

Now comes the Four Directions organization, which works to turn out voters in reservation areas. Its leaders want to expand the early-voting center concept.

They want Gant to use HAVA money to pay for additional early-voting centers in Fort Thompson, Eagle Butte and Wanblee.

This isn't just about driving distance. This is about racial geography.

Four Directions wants people who live in those reservation areas to receive special accommodations that aren't available in the rest of South Dakota.

People at Fort Thompson need to drive a half-hour to Gann Valley to visit the Buffalo County courthouse. People at Eagle Butte need to drive to the Ziebach County courthouse at Dupree or the Dewey County courthouse at Timber Lake. Wanblee is in Jackson County, whose courthouse is up at Kadoka.

So what about people in Groton, who have to drive to Aberdeen? Or people in Wall, who have to go Rapid City? Or south Sioux Falls, when the Lincoln County seat is at Canton?

Lyman County's seat is Kennebec, but there are three larger communities of Lower Brule, Oacoma and Presho. Burke, the seat of Gregory County, is half the size of Gregory.

Those examples illustrate the challenge.

We don't have any standards set by the Legislature for proximity of early-voting centers or the size of communities that should have them.

The only guide is the one set incidentally by Gant in 2012, amid the federal court case over Shannon County: A county without a courthouse should have an early-voting center.

Setting standards is a discussion the state Board of Elections and the Legislature should have, soon.

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