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South Dakota's Gant to Form Task Force on HAVA Funds

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[Image courtesy of truckerhunt]

Back in August, I blogged about a controversy in South Dakota about whether or not to establish vote centers in certain Native American communities. At the time, Secretary of State Jason Gant said that he would seek guidance from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission about whether the state could use federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds to set up the satellite locations.

This week, Secretary Gant (who has announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014) is seeking to set up a state task force to examine the funding issue. The Argus-Leader has more details:

The decision to name a task force comes after Gant and the Board of Elections deflected a request to establish in-person absentee voting and voter registration stations in three predominantly Native American communities. In his release announcing the task force, Gant said that issue and others could be addressed by the task force. The news release said Gant hoped the group would "strive for uniformity in our election system across all South Dakota counties."

Earlier this summer, voting rights group Four Directions asked the state's Board of Elections to approve a request to place absentee voting stations in Wanblee, Eagle Butte and Fort Thompson. Four Directions Executive Director OJ Semans noted the state still had about $9 million in HAVA funds, money that Congress appropriated to states to modernize voting equipment and procedures following the controversial presidential election of 2000.

Semans estimated the request would cost the state $50,000 per election cycle.

But Gant and three other members of the Board of Elections resisted the idea, and Gant insisted he needed to get the approval of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which decides whether certain expenses are appropriate for HAVA funds.

The problem - as you might expect - is that the EAC's current state of limbo means it cannot provide guidance:

Gant released a letter from the EAC's Monica Holman Evans that addressed his request for an advisory opinion. The letter indicated that no answer would be forthcoming.

"EAC currently does not have enough seated commissioners to form a quorum," she wrote.

Given the disagreement about the vote centers, it shouldn't be surprising that opinion is divided about the task force as well:

[Four Directions'] Semans called the decision to form a task force a "stalling tactic." Semans argued that Gant already has the authority under the current state HAVA plan, noting that he already spent HAVA money to put in-person early vote centers in Shannon and Todd counties.

"He has the authority," Semans said. "He's always had the authority. It's sad he won't use it."

Dick Casey, a member of the Board of Elections, thinks Gant took an "appropriate step" in calling for a task force. While Casey agrees that Gant already might have the authority, he said a task force rewrite of the HAVA plan could make it more clear.

Casey said he also asked Gant to invite a lawyer from the Justice Department to address the task force so that the members understand issues related to voting rights and minorities. Some have argued that if Indian counties get more than one early-vote station, predominantly white counties should too. But Casey said there could be questions about that issue in federal law.

"I'm concerned that we do this the right way," he said. "The treatment of minorities may be different than those things that are accorded to non-minorities."

This news is significant on two fronts. First, it indicates that South Dakota will confront the substantive question of vote centers sooner than later. Perhaps more significantly, it suggests that increasingly states are making the final adjustments to a Help America Vote Act that doesn't include the EAC.

As always, stay tuned ...

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