One GOP worker faces a charge in Pennington County; Tech and Black Hills State among colleges included in the investigation.

By Carson Walker, Associated Press Writer

SIOUX FALLS - Six Republican notary publics face a misdemeanor charge for their inconsistency in watching voters sign documents in connection with absentee ballot applications filled out on South Dakota college campuses, but there isn't any evidence of voter fraud, Attorney General Larry Long said Friday.

Long and Secretary of State Chris Nelson outlined a two-week investigation in a document faxed to county auditors and state's attorneys.

The document states "it is a near certainty that all absentee voters that had their application notarized by one of the six notaries" will be challenged in court.

"Lawyers who represent the Democrats have written to us and told us that," Long told reporters.

Several attorneys have contacted him, he said.

Long, Chris Nelson, Minnehaha County State's Attorney Dave Nelson and Minnehaha County auditor Sue Roust briefed reporters on the investigation.

Five of the Republican notaries were charged in Minnehaha County because the ballot applications were all processed in Sioux Falls, even though some were gathered elsewhere.

Those five are: Joseph Alick, 28; Nathan Mertz, 20; Todd Schlekeway, 27; Rachel Hoff, 22; and Eric Fahrendorf, 24. Another GOP worker, Jennifer Giannonatti, will be charged in Pennington County because of ballots collected in Rapid City, Long said.

Campuses included in the investigation include South Dakota State University, University of South Dakota, Augustana College, Mount Marty College, Black Hills State University, Dakota State, Northern State and South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Dave Nelson said the six are charged with improper use of a notary commission, a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to a month in jail and a $200 fine. They can also lose their notary licenses.

"Notary violations are very, very common" in government and business, he said.

But unlike most cases that aren't prosecuted, the six were charged because they made it possible for someone's vote not to count, Dave Nelson said.

"The potential consequences of these acts are significant and far-reaching," he said.

The five charged in Sioux Falls are scheduled to make their first court appearance next Friday. They are all cooperating, he said.

Most of the absentee ballot applications acquired by the Republican get-out-the-vote effort were legal, and there isn't any indication that any unqualified voter tried to cast an absentee ballot, Long said.

The only people who broke the law are the six notaries who failed to watch some people sign the documents, he said.

"Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn't," Long said.

"Everybody who's committed crimes has been charged," he said. "We don't have any reason to believe there's anything else out there."

The investigation didn't find a formal Republican Party policy that encouraged workers to skirt the law, Long said. "What we found was sloppy supervision."

Larry Russell, who ran the GOP's get-out-the-vote program, resigned earlier this month. Russell, who had sought the party's nomination for a special U.S. House election in June, was replaced as head of the Republican Victory operation by Herb Jones, manager of U.S. Senate candidate John Thune's 2002 Senate bid.

Chris Nelson's office commissions the state's notaries, who are legally public officials.

"There's six individuals that didn't take that responsibility seriously and violated that trust," he said.

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Chris Nelson said he wants to make sure no voter is disenfranchised and that the Election Day vote count is not disrupted.

The document faxed to auditors asks them to compare voter registration cards with absentee ballot applications to make sure it is the same person. It also outlines how the local election board should handle a challenge to a voter's identity.

Chris Nelson said that rarely happens but could this year.

According to Long and Chris Nelson's document, Hoff improperly notarized 71 applications, and about half of Giannonatti's 111 were improper. The secretary of state said his office will contact those 182 applicants and ask each to submit a photo ID.

Alick improperly notarized about 60 applications. But because there aren't any copies of the forms, all auditors have been asked to look for his name, contact those applicants and ask for a copy of their photo ID.

Long and Chris Nelson said the investigation couldn't sort out all applications done by Hoff, Giannonatti, Mertz, Fahrendorf and Schlekeway, but the Republican Party wrote to about 1,400 applicants and asked them to send in a photo copy of their ID to the county auditor.

There is still time to handle any problems before the Nov. 2 election, the officials said.

A statement released Friday afternoon by Jason Glodt, executive director of the state GOP, said: "As we have clearly demonstrated in this matter, the South Dakota Republican Party has a zero-tolerance policy for our staff and volunteers when it comes to obeying the law, no matter how minor the infraction. We fully support the action of law enforcement in this matter and believe their decision is appropriate."

Long said he hopes that if any ballots are challenged in court, the judge sides with the voter's right to be counted and agrees that the solution was a valid way to fix problems caused by wayward notaries.

The law that created the requirement for a copy of a photo ID or notarized signature to accompany all absentee ballots was passed in 2003 and took effect Jan.1. Its intent was to ensure voter integrity.

"That's why this is happening this year," Roust said.

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