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SD Senate panel declines to prohibit private funding for voting places

PIERRE — A South Dakota Senate panel sided with the Four Directions organization Wednesday by allowing private funding to continue to be used to pay for election polling places.

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The Chamberlain-based group, which receives its money from American Indian tribes outside South Dakota, paid Buffalo and Dewey counties to open additional voting centers in 2012.

Secretary of State Jason Gant wanted the Legislature to restrict funding for administration of elections.

His measure, SB 33, would have required funding to come only from federal, state, local or tribal governments.

Gant said it wouldn’t have affected voter turnout efforts, voter registration drives and services such as rides to polling places.

The additional voting places in Buffalo and Dewey counties were sought because of travel distances between the county courthouses and communities with large populations of American Indians.

Those situations were different than in Todd and Shannon counties, where voting centers were opened because the counties don’t have organized governments and the election services are provided by the governments in neighboring counties.

O.J. Semans, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member and the executive director for Four Directions, said the voting centers substantially increased turnout.

“I consider equal access to the ballot box the backbone of democracy,” Semans told members of the Senate Local Government Committee in his testimony Wednesday.

Several Democratic legislators from Indian country spoke against Gant’s bill.

“We always have had issues getting to the ballot,” Rep. Troy Heinert of Mission said.

Rep. Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge recalled serving as a paid driver to carry voters to the polls in the 2004 U.S. Senate election.

“It was through a previous Democratic campaign. I don’t want to mention names,” Killer said.

That election saw Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle mount a massive turnout effort across the reservations, including at Pine Ridge. Republican John Thune defeated Daschle.

Two years earlier, voter turnout on the reservations had helped Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson narrowly turn back Thune’s challenge.

Four Directions is a 501 c(4) non-profit whose funding to counties has had nothing to do with specific campaigns, according to Semans. “The donations we get are from tribes not in South Dakota,” he testified. “The tribes in South Dakota have not donated to Four Directions.”

Gant said the prohibition was intended to stop outside influences by “any group” on the administration of elections in South Dakota.

He said there is potential for “a lot of money” to start flowing to county governments for polling places as different sides attempt to one-up each other.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said Republicans, for example, could give money to Pennington County to add voting centers in his legislative district in an attempt to drive up Republican turnout.

“And then what’s next?” Tieszen asked. “Where does it stop? I find it troubling. This is sort of a good thing gone bad.”

Two senators — Republican Jean Hunhoff of Yankton and Democrat Angie Buhl O’Donnell — said the matter should be left to local control for county governments to decide.

“If that (abuse) happens, we can readdress the issue,” Buhl O’Donnell said.

Hunhoff said the intent of Gant’s bill was good. “I don’t think it’s the right fix at this time,” she said.

Sen. Ried Holien, R-Watertown, took the same path. “I like the intent. I’m not sure it’s a significant problem to be addressing it at this time,” he said.

The vote was 5-1 to kill the bill. It was probably Gant’s last attempt on the issue. He isn’t seeking re-election this year.