As a poster child for the Native American voting-rights issue, it's hard to beat Buffalo County in central South Dakota.
Eligible Native American voters living in Fort Thompson, which has a population of about 1,300, must travel 25 miles each way if they want to exercise their early voting rights at the courthouse in Gann Valley, the smallest county seat in the nation with a population of 14.
Most of them don't make the trip, even though early voting is becoming more popular elsewhere.
Not only are many Native Americans skeptical about their impact on the non-Native political system, but many who live in such an economically depressed area don't have reliable transportation.
That makes driving 25 miles each way a daunting proposition. And although tribal voters have the option of absentee voting by mail, advocates argue that it falls short of the equality required by law and doesn't compare with the assistance available to voters on site.
Satellite voter-registration and absentee-ballot stations have offered answers to questions of voter-access inequalities in other far-flung parts of Indian Country. They get isolated voters closer to equality in the six weeks of early voting accessible to those near a county courthouse.
But that carries a cost, especially in profoundly rural counties where budgets are tight and extra dollars limited.
Now, three tribes in South Dakota and a Native voting-rights group are asking the state to release federal funds to help operate satellite voter-registration and absentee-voting offices at Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation. They want similar funding for Wanblee on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation to reduce what they say is disenfranchisement of Native Americans.
The issue is on the agenda of the South Dakota Board of Elections Wednesday in Pierre. Voting-rights advocate O.J. Semans of Four Directions Inc., a voting advocacy effort based in Mission, will seek federal funds for the three satellite offices.
Four Directions has helped pay for satellite offices in the past, including in Gann Valley. But the organization is struggling to come up with money for 2014. Meanwhile, South Dakota has millions of dollars in federal funds available through the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
The funds are intended to help state and local governments upgrade their elections procedures and equipment. 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."
Buffalo County Auditor Elaine Wulff said a limited satellite office in Fort Thompson worked in 2012 because Four Directions paid the bill.
"It would be very difficult for us because our budget is very tight. I doubt we'd have the funds for it," she said, noting that Native American voters seem to like to vote in person.
One of the questions is whether a Native American community is eligible for federal money if it is in a county with a courthouse. Pine Ridge Village on the Pine Ridge Reservation has had HAVA funding for a satellite office. So has Rosebud Village on the Rosebud reservation.
Both are in unincorporated counties without courthouses that contract with adjoining counties for election services.
When contacted Monday, South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant declined to say whether he thinks Buffalo, Jackson and Dewey counties quality for HAVA funds.
"The question of whether HAVA funds may be used for satellite voting locations will be discussed at the next Board of Elections meeting," he said by email.
Semans and Four Directions consultant Bret Healy believe they do. They say the issue is voter access, not county incorporation. And they say the satellite centers would only cost $15,000 to $16,000 for each community center for the 2014 election cycle.
Equitable access to voting places is a step out of disenfranchisement and a step toward a better life, they say.
"Reservations are always the poorest on the indicator scale of the poorest counties in the nation," Semans said. "Research has shown over and over that if you don't participate in the political system, you're going to stay where you are."
With with the mail-in absentee-voter option, Semans argues that satellite offices are needed to bring more equality to the state's election system. They have the support of the Crow Creek, Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes.
"We're not talking about doing this everywhere," Semans said. "But it makes sense in counties with population centers bigger than the county seat."