Tribal-voting advocates are pressuring South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant to approve the release of federal funds for satellite voting centers to serve Native American voters in 2014.
Four Directions Inc., a Native American voting rights group based on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, asked the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday to investigate Gant's refusal to release Help America Vote Act funds for voting centers at Wanblee, Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson. Four Directions also wants DOJ to investigate the recent refusal to support the satellite requests by the state Board of Elections on a 4-3 vote with Gant leading and voting with the opposition.
Four Directions Executive Director O.J. Semans attacked those decisions in his letter to the DOJ, saying they reflected ongoing inequality in voting access for tribal people.
Semans wrote "it should cause you and everyone who cares about equal access to the ballot box for Native Americans grave concern that this denial is steeped in an intent to discriminate."
Gant said his decision was based in uncertainty about whether HAVA funding could be used as proposed by Four Directions and the Oglala, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek Sioux tribes. And he took offense at the insinuation of prejudice.
"That is absolutely absurd and offensive," he said
Gant continues to argue that it's unclear whether HAVA money can be used for satellite offices in incorporated counties that have their own courthouses. Previous use of the funding was in Shannon and Todd Counties, which are unincorporated and rely on courthouses in adjoining Fall River and Tripp counties.
"I am unsure on whether these funds can be used in this manner," Gant said. "And that is why I'm asking the Election Assistance Commission if they have any guidance."
Gant sent a letter last week to the federal commission, a move that caused an immediate response from Four Directions and state Board of Elections member Linda Lea Viken of Rapid City. Both said it became apparent soon after the board vote that the Election Assistance Commission has been all but inactive during recent years.
They also argued that Gant clearly has the authority to release HAVA funds, about $12 million of which is available to South Dakota. About $3 million of that is in county funds.
Viken said Gant's letter to the EAC was a "meaningless gesture" that only delays a decision on releasing the funds that Gant could make already.
"The old saying is justice delayed is justice denied," she said. "And that's what this would amount to if we don't find some alternative for an answer to this request."
Four Directions consultant Bret Healy put it more emphatically.
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"You can't have your state's chief elections officer knowingly sending a letter for advice to a dead agency," Healy said. "He might as well be writing Santa Claus, because he's got a better chance of getting a response than with the EAC."
The EAC's four commissioner slots have been vacant for several years, and it is unable to muster a quorum to conduct business thanks to congressional bickering.
Gant disputes the charge that he has sent the request to a black hole. Whatever the current state of the EAC, it is the federal entity that applies audit requirements and mandates certain reports from his office, he said.
"And that's why I'm asking the commission if they have any guidance," he said. "If they don't, we'll move on to the next step."
Gant wasn't clear Tuesday on what that step will be, however.
Meanwhile, the Four Directions complaint to DOJ proceeds. And it was filed online on the same day the Buffalo County Commission voted to establish a satellite voter-registration and in-person absentee voting office in Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation — provided that HAVA funds are available to help pay for it.
Democratic state Rep. Kevin Killer of Pine Ridge joined the push Tuesday by beginning an online petition in support of the tribes in seeking the satellite offices.
Gant said it's important to clarify that he is not denying the satellite offices, which any county can establish and Four Directions can help fund as they have in some instances in the past. But the question of whether HAVA funds can be used is still uncertain, he said.
Gant also pointed out that Native Americans anywhere in the state, like any other citizen, can request an absentee ballot by mail and vote that way.
"So they can cast their ballot from their kitchen table," he said. "And it doesn't matter if they're next to a county courthouse or 200 miles away."
Semans and Healy argue that in-person early voting opportunities must be provided to all citizens under the law in the weeks prior to the election. And the mail-in option doesn't match in-person opportunities that satellite offices provide, they say.
That's especially important in certain parts of the state, where larger Native American populations are isolated from smaller county seats imposing travel obstacles that create inequalities in voting opportunity, they say.
"We just had the Buffalo County Commission in a unanimous 3-0 vote decide to set up that satellite office for the general election in 2014, contingent upon HAVA funding," Healy said. "And there's federal funding just sitting in Pierre to handle this."