January 22, 2017

Residents of SD county sue over early voting

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) – Twenty-five residents are suing South Dakota's secretary of state and other government officials to extend the early voting period in Shannon County, claiming current provisions violate the Constitution.

The county on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation contracts with neighboring Fall River County for some services, including elections. That leaves residents with no permanent location within Shannon County to register to vote and to pick up and submit an absentee ballot. They must do it by mail or drive to Hot Springs, a trip of more than 2 1/2 hours for some.

The lawsuit filed against Secretary of State Jason Gant and government officials in the two counties claims violations of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law and of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Shannon County commissioners last month agreed to set up an early voting site in the town of Pine Ridge for six days before the June 5 primary and the Nov. 6 general election. The lawsuit seeks 46 days of early voting before both elections, which is what other counties provide. Shannon County maintains it cannot afford that.

“We don't even have the money to fight this lawsuit,” Commission Chairwoman Lyla Hutchison told the Rapid City Journal. Commissioners on Jan. 6 voted to give up their salaries to help with the financial problems.

Less than 14 percent of the land in Shannon County is taxable. The rest is individual trust or tribal land that is not subject to property taxes necessary to support a county government.

Gant is named in the complaint because the plaintiffs want him to use federal Help America Vote Act money on early voting. Gant told the Argus Leader that his office's policy has been to reimburse certain costs only after an election, so that there are receipts that prove the expenses. In the past, the dollars have paid for such things as voting machines for people with disabilities and Lakota language interpreters.

“It sounds like Shannon County is low on county funds and they were asking for additional funds ... but all counties struggle with their finances,” Gant said.