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More counties might operate satellite voting centers in '16

PIERRE—South Dakota's top elections official accepted recommendations Monday for helping counties offer more locations for absentee in-person voting in 2016.

The state's Help America Vote Act grant board unanimously supported the parameters that Secretary of State Shantel Krebs said she would use. Todd and Oglala Lakota counties hosted absentee voting centers in the weeks leading to the 2014 general elections.

The purpose of the satellite centers is to offer early voting access similar to what is at county courthouses. Todd and Oglala Lakota counties don't have courthouses and rely on neighboring counties to conduct county, state and federal elections.

The Four Directions organizations has been working to expand the satellite-centers approach to other counties where there are significant populations of American Indians who live some distance from courthouses in their counties.

They include Buffalo County, home to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in the center of South Dakota, and Jackson County between Oglala Lakota and Todd counties amid the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

South Dakota has nine official reservations within its borders.

Krebs' office has funding from the federal Help America Vote Act program that can be used for a variety of election purposes including helping pay for satellite centers.

The new parameters that Krebs would use limit counties to HAVA funding for one satellite center apiece. Counties can operate additional centers with other sources of revenue.

Use of U.S. mail for requesting, receiving and sending absentee ballots remains available to all South Dakota registered voters. The new parameters are broader with two sets of criteria that can be used. One set says the area in consideration for a satellite center must have 50 percent more individuals below the poverty line than the rest of the county and must live 50 percent farther from the courthouse or other satellite location than the rest of the county.

The other set says the satellite center can be located at a specific jurisdiction such as an incorporated municipality, unincorporated town or U.S. Census-designated place that doesn't have "affordable, regular, convenient public transportation" from the place to the county seat.

Those locations must have populations of at least 75 percent who belong to a "suspect class" based on race, national origin, alienage or religious affiliation.

Buffalo, Jackson and Dewey counties meet the criteria, Krebs said.

Mellette County Auditor Jerry Schwarting, a member of the HAVA grant board, said his county might offer a satellite center if it doesn't have to be open for the full 45 days of absentee voting prior to an election.

"You can establish the time frame," Krebs told him.

Bret Healy, a consultant for Four Directions, said he holds Krebs, her staff and the HAVA board in "admiration." He said the two sets of parameters would help counties.

"This looks to be a very workable solution," Healy said.

Officially the application deadline for HAVA grants for the 2016 elections passed on July 1 this year and the next deadline would be July 1, 2017, for the 2018 elections.

With the new parameters in hand, Krebs said she might ask the HAVA board to re-open the application process for 2016, so HAVA funds can be available for satellite centers for the primary elections next spring and the general elections next autumn.

One additional requirement is counties must submit cost estimates for their satellite centers three months prior to the primary and general elections.