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Twenty-five residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation living in Shannon County have sued the county commission demanding 46 days of early voting on the reservation prior to the June primary and November general election.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court on Jan. 13, reawakens a complaint familiar to Shannon County, which encompasses a vast portion of the reservation.

South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant, the Fall River County Commission, Fall River/Shannon counties State's Attorney Jim Sword and Auditor Sue Ganje are also named as defendants in the suit filed by Sioux Falls attorney Steven Sandven.

The lawsuit does not come as a surprise, Sword said. "We anticipated early voting would be an issue for Shannon County," he said.

Shannon County contracts with Fall River County for government services in the absence of its own county government. Less than 14 percent of the land in Shannon County is taxable. The remainder is individual trust or tribal land that is not subject to property taxes necessary to support a county government.

The plaintiffs have accused the defendants of "abusing their power" by not providing 46 days of early voting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the 2012 primary and general election.

By failing to provide the early voting, the plaintiffs claim violations of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law and violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In December, Shannon County commissioners agreed to provide early voting at a location in Pine Ridge for six days prior to the June primary and six days prior to the November elections.

Early voting will be available for six weeks prior to each election by mail or at the Fall River County courthouse in Hot Springs.

Fall River agreed to provide the services requested for early voting, but stipulated that Shannon County must reimburse it at the end of every month for its expenses.

In order to find the money for the limited early voting and to provide on-site Lakota language services, Shannon County tightened its already Spartan budget considerably, according to commission Chairman Wendell Yellow Bull.

Commissioners voted on Jan. 6 to forsake their salaries. They will, however, continue to receive mileage payments for their monthly trips to Hot Springs for commission meetings.

"We can't even afford to have extra meetings," Commissioner Lyla Hutchison said.

Hutchison said the county set aside $45,000 for this year's elections. To come up with that money, Shannon County will not fund several programs including its judicial system, law library, court appointed attorneys, jail, juvenile care, county poor, Extension, soil conservation and weed control.

The county is left with $14,750 in its contingency fund to handle other expenses, Hutchison said.

The lawsuit asks the court to change the system of reimbursement for federal Help America Vote Act funds that are distributed through Gant's office.

Under the present system, Shannon County must first pay the election costs and then submit a bill for reimbursement to the secretary of state.

Gant said Tuesday that there are restrictions on how the money can be used. Shannon County has approximately $68,000 in Help America Vote Act funds available that can be used to reimburse the county, he said.

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"It's also my responsibility to make sure that I'm spending it appropriately" Gant said.

"I can't ensure that without a receipt. I want to make sure every dollar I spend of a fund is going directly to an election activity."

Gant said everyone in Shannon County has the same opportunity for early voting by using the mail or visiting the courthouse that other South Dakotans have.

With property taxes collected only twice a year, cash flow is always a problem, Hutchison said.

The commission has approached the state's Congressional delegation to ask for help with its dwindling reserves, Yellow Bull said.

In the very near future, the county will have exhausted its reserves, Hutchison said.

"We don't even have the money to fight this lawsuit," she said.

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com.

 

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