The South Dakota Board of Elections denied a request for support Wednesday by three Native American tribes who want to use federal funds to establish satellite voting stations on their reservations in 2014.
But the board might not be done with the issue, depending on whether federal officials say Help American Vote Act funds can be used for the proposed satellite stations.
Secretary of State Jason Gant cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 rejection of a resolution of support for the Oglala, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek Sioux tribes and Four Directions Inc., a tribal-voting advocacy group based on the Rosebud Reservation.
Gant and some other board members had concerns about whether the federal funds sought by the tribes to help pay for the stations could be legally released by the state.
The tribes and Four Directions say the satellite stations, which would provide voter-registration and absentee-voting services in the weeks prior to Election Day in Wanblee, Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson, are essential to Native Americans seeking more election access.
Four Directions Executive Director O.J. Semans and consultant Bret Healy told board members during the conference-call meeting that the funds can be used for the satellite offices and that Gant has the discretion to release them.
Gant, however, argued that it’s unclear whether the federal HAVA funds held by the state can be used for the satellite stations, since they would be in incorporated counties. Previous satellite stations in Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Todd County on the Rosebud Reservation qualified for HAVA funds. But they were in unincorporated counties without courthouses.
Previous satellite stations in Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson were operated without the HAVA money, which the tribes say they need.
Gant argued that if the federal Elections Assistance Commission affirms the use of HAVA funding for the stations, the state plan for implementing HAVA might have to be revised in order to release the funding. He said he will write the Elections Assistance Commission for clarification.
Board member Linda Lea Viken of Rapid City made the motion to support the request by the tribes and Four Directions. Gant argued against it, saying the board should wait for word from the Elections Assistance Commission.
"Before a 'yes' or 'no' can be made on the question, we must first learn whether the use of HAVA funds is even an option," Gant wrote in an email after the meeting. "For years, Todd and Shannon counties have been able to use HAVA funds due to the fact that they do not have a courthouse in their county."
Semans and Healy argue that even with courthouses in Jackson, Dewey and Buffalo counties, Native Americans living in Wanblee, Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson are forced to drive to smaller county seats miles away for voter-registration and in-person absentee voting services available before the election.
In the case of Buffalo County, there are more than, 1,300 people, almost all Native Americans, in Fort Thompson and 14 in Gann Valley, the smallest county seat in the nation.
Healy said he received an issue brief from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, sought through Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson's office, that concluded that there was no reason the HAVA funds couldn't be used for the satellite offices.
The question isn't county incorporation, but access and equality, Semans said.
"If you truly want to improve Native American participation in the election process, allowing equal access will allow you greater participation," he said. "Voting is the backbone of democracy."