In remarkably vague testimony relying mostly on general xenophobia, Secretary Gant testified that the intent of Senate Bill 33 was to ensure that outside money can't influence or buy our election activities. Secretary Gant worried that letting anyone other than government fund the operation of voting stations would allow outside groups to influence turnout and vote results.
Sioux Falls Senators Deb Soholt (R-14) and Senator Angie Buhl O'Donnell (D-15) immediately asked Secretary Gant for specific examples of the improper influence that Senate Bill 33 would target. Secretary Gant refused to name any specific, extant threat of improper influence. Senator Soholt asked twice for Secretary Gant to explain how place currently served by satellite voting stations funded by outside parties would maintain voting access if SB 33 passed. Twice Secretary Gant dodged the question, first replying, "I wouldn't know what the future is going to hold in those areas," then scrambling for cover under his imagined red herring that a "New York billionaire" would donate money to a county to run its elections but only on the condition that the county place extra voting stations in the east side of the county to bias the vote.
Secretary Gant's real target, Indian vote advocates Four Directions, was there to talk specifics. Four Directions exec O.J. Semans testified that his group is the only group currently engaging in the election funding that Sec. Gant wants to ban with SB 33. Semans said that his group's efforts have increased voter turnout in Shannon and Todd counties by 130% since 2004. He said that thanks to their funding a satellite voting station in Fort Thompson in the 2012 election, Buffalo County had the second-highest voter turnout in South Dakota.
Semans said it's hard to see how increasing voter turnout influences elections negatively. He said that helping tribes participate in elections is crucial to improving their social condition. Senate Bill 33, said Semans, is an effort to keep tribes out of the political process and thus leave them stuck in their poor status quo conditions. That kind of voter suppression, said Semans, would only make tribal-White relations in South Dakota worse.
Senator Soholt got Semans to admit that Four Directions is funded primarily by out-of-state tribes. Semans noted that South Dakota's tribes are among the poorest in the nation and thus can't afford to fund such voting centers.
Senator Jean Hunhoff (R-18/Yankton) turned to an issue that alarmed her Republican sensibilities: local control. Right now, counties and school districts are free to accept or reject offers of financial assistance to set up voting centers. Senate Bill 33 would take away that local control; Secretary Gant and the Legislature would make that decision for them, in the negative.
Senator Craig Tieszen (R-34/Rapid City) finally brought up the "elephant in the room": Indians tend to vote Democratic, and increasing Indian turnout increases the Indian vote. To keep from sounding like a partisan racist, Senator Tieszen proposed a hypothetical: suppose the national Republican Party or some surrogate thereof decided to counter Four Directions' efforts by funding more voting centers on the street corners of his very Republican district in Rapid City. Senator Tieszen suggested that political tactic would be a logical progression and one that he apparently finds objectionable.
Senator Buhl O'Donnell rejected the notion of unfairness in outside funding for voting centers. She said the one example on the table of such efforts has local officials identifying voting access problems. Local officials can't get the state to help, so they choose to accept help from a willing third party. They use this outside money to provide satelite voting stations that confer no special privileges but simply give their local constituents the same access to voting that everyone else in the state gets. Senate Bill 33, said Buhl O'Donnell, puts tribal communities in a tight spot.
Senator Hunhoff generously acknowledged both Tieszen's and Buhl O'Donnell's points as reasonable, but turned to reality versus hypotheticals. The two fundamental issues for Hunhoff are local control and voting access. Right now, Four Directions helps provide voting access. Local governments can choose to accept that help. Senator Hunhoff sees no reason to monkey with that formula.
Senator Holien moved to kill Senate Bill 33 by sending it to the non-existent 41st day of the Legislative calendar (you know you're from South Dakota when "41st day" means something other than Noah putting away his umbrella). Senators Hunhoff, Soholt, Buhl O'Donnell, and Chairman Mark Kirkeby (R-35/Rapid City) joined Holien in killing SB 33; only Senator Tieszen voted for it. (Senator Dan Lederman missed the fun.)
The Senate Local Government committee took a welcome stand for American Indian voting access this morning. They rejected a thinly cloaked voter-suppression effort by Secretary Gant. Instead of buying into manufactured fear of outsiders and hypothetical slippery slopes, they focused on the practical good of helping South Dakotans vote.