Four Directions continues to fight for American Indian voting rights in South Dakota. And yesterday, at a task force meeting in Pierre, instead of the obstruction and obfuscation dished out by Secretary of State Jason Gant last summer, Four Directions got what sounded like a fair hearing and a positive response to a plan to create satellite early-voting stations for three reservation communities.
I spoke with Bret Healy, who represented Indian interests at yesterday's meeting and presented Four Directions' plan. Four Directions wants Secretary Gant to spend some of South Dakota's stockpile of eight million dollars of federal Help America Vote Act money to run satellite early-voting stations in Fort Thompson, Eagle Butte, and Wanblee. These three reservation towns are Indian population hubs that are relatively removed from their county seats.
Four Directions yesterday proposed the following three criteria for establishing satellite voting centers in counties that already offer voting at their courthouses:
We propose that if for all three factors if American Indians living on Reservations are 50% less likely to have a motor vehicle than Anglos, have 50% more individuals below the poverty line than Anglos, and live, on average, 50% farther than Anglos from the existing county seat, then HAVA funds should be made available to fund a satellite office for the full election period and be open for the same hours and dates as the county courthouse in that county [Bret Healy, Four Directions memo to Secretary of State Jason Gant and 2014 HAVA Task Force, 2013.12.17].
Vehicle access, poverty, and distance—these criteria mirror those suggested by Wyoming geographer Gerald R. Webster, who studied similar voter isolation problems in Montana. These criteria easily apply to Indian voters in Fort Thompson, Eagle Butte, and Wanblee.
So how much would it cost to give folks in these three towns access to early voting comparable to what folks closer to the county seat get? If we wanted to open weekday voting stations in Fort Thompson, Eagle Butte, and Wanblee for both the primary and the general election for the full 46 days during which South Dakota allows early voting, Four Directions says the cost would be about $46,500. However, practicing the "art of the possible," Healy says Four Directions would be satisfied with early voting satellite stations just during the general election. That cuts the election-year cost in half. With local cooperation and local hires (easily doable, says Healy), we can reduce mileage and commuting pay. Essentially, opening all three voting stations would take less than $20,000 per election.
Put it this way: invest just half a million HAVA dollars in these voting stations, and those three towns get easier voting access through 2062. Plus, the state would still have millions of dollars left to spend on elevators for Granny and other voting access projects.
Keep in mind that these voting stations aren't just for Indians. They're open to any registered voter. Consider the situation in Buffalo County. There's more reason for any resident, white or Indian, to be driving through Fort Thompson than through Gann Valley, the county seat. Travelers on Highway 45 can't even get gas in Gann Valley. A voting station in Fort Thompson makes voting easier for almost everyone in Buffalo County.
Healy says the Four Directions proposal got a favorable reception yesterday. The task force will conduct some informal discussions by wire before its next face-to-face meeting on January 27. Secretary Gant laid out a timeline yesterday of bringing a proposal to the state Board of Elections in February so that any final decision can be placed in the Federal Register by March 1. The state must forward any decision to the federal Election Assistance Commission, the quorumless body to which Secretary Gant deferred back in August in what smelled very much like an effort to permanently postpone a decision. But Healy says the task force received assurance yesterday that the EAC can act on any request from South Dakota, even without official EAC commissioners in place.