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3 SD tribes seek state help for voting stations

RAPID CITY (AP) -- Three American Indian tribes in South Dakota and a voting-rights group have asked state election officials to help set up satellite voter registration and absentee voting offices for tribal members who live far from county courthouses.

The tribes are asking the state to use federal money to help operate satellite voting stations at Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation, at Wanblee on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Rapid City Journal reported. All three towns are predominantly Native American, with populations exceeding that of county seats.

The state Board of Elections will discuss the funding request at a meeting Wednesday.

O.J. Semans with Four Directions Inc., a voting advocacy organization located in Mission on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, said his group has helped pay for satellite offices in the past but is struggling to come up with money for the 2014 election. He said South Dakota should fund the three satellite registration and voting stations with federal funds available through the Help America Vote Act of 2002, passed by Congress to upgrade voting systems and voter access.

Semans said access to voting places should be part of that upgrade.

"One of the problems we keep running into is the counties say they can't afford it," Semans said. "In the past, Four Directions has been paying them. But we don't collect taxes and can't afford it."

Fort Thompson is 25 miles from the Buffalo County courthouse in Gann Valley, Wanblee is 27 miles from the Jackson County courthouse in Kadoka, and Eagle Butte is 54 miles from the Dewey County courthouse in Timber Lake.

Buffalo County Auditor Elaine Wulff said a limited satellite office in Fort Thompson worked in 2012 because Four Directions paid the bill. But she said she doubts the county will have the money to pay for it next year.

One of the questions is whether a Native American community is eligible for the federal money if it is located in a county with a courthouse. Pine Ridge Village on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Rosebud Village on the Rosebud Reservation have had federal funding for satellite offices. Both are in unincorporated counties without courthouses that contract with adjoining counties for election services.

South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant, the state's top election official, declined to say whether he thinks Buffalo, Jackson and Dewey counties qualify for the federal funds, but he said the Election Board will discuss the issue.

Semans said the issue is voter access, not county incorporation. Four Directions estimates the satellite offices would cost only $15,000 to $16,000 each for the 2014 election cycle.

"We're not talking about doing this everywhere," Semans said. "But it makes sense in counties with population centers bigger than the county seat."