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South Dakota early voting leads to court charges
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South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long announces legal charges in the state's early voting. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
It's looking more and more as though South Dakota's election could be decided in court. Six people have been charged with crimes stemming from a Republican get-out-the-vote campaign. All but one were employed by the Republican party. The case raises questions about whether the ballots will count.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — In an election year where everyone is looking for problems - they're already happening in South Dakota. To unravel this story here's a little background.

South Dakota law allows early voting. Assuming you're registered to vote, to get your ballot you have to fill out a request. That form is handed in with a photo ID, or with a signature witnessed by a notary public. Witnessed is the key word here.

That's what wasn't happening. A get-out-the-vote effort sponsored by the Republican Party is where this story begins. Their mission was to target college students.

Larry Long, South Dakota's attorney general, says the circumstances were different on each campus. On one campus there was a table set up in the student lounge. By law, a notary public was supposed to be there at all times to witness signatures.

"On occasions when it (the table) was not, (staffed by a notary public) the individual who was there would still take absentee ballot applications and they would later be notarized by an individual who did not see the applicant sign the application," said Long.

On another college campus, workers visited dorm rooms looking for voters. The notary public notarized those applications after they were signed.

You see, this has never happened in South Dakota before and we are frankly, we're analyzing the law. And trying to give the state's attorneys and the county auditors the best legal advice that we can.
- S.D. Attorney General Larry Long

Now everyone wants to know where these ballots are and how many there are. Each absentee request goes to the county auditor where the student is registered to vote. The only way to track them is with the signature of the notary public. Those are the six people who face charges.

Dave Nelson, the Minnehaha County state's attorney, says this kind of violation happens all the time; in businesses and even in government. But he filed charges in this case because it could affect the outcome of the election.

"Here in this case, the potential consequences of these acts are very far reaching and very significant, in that they pose the possibility at least of a challenge to a voters enfranchisement," said Nelson. "There's a possibility of a challenge to the legitimacy of the electoral process."

Nelson says five of the six notaries public now face charges will appear in a Sioux Falls court on October 29. He anticipates a guilty plea and sentencing that day. A sixth person appears in a Rapid City courtroom. Each faces up to 30 days in jail and a $200 fine.

The question now, is should the ballots count? Attorney General Larry Long suspects ultimately a judge will decide. Long has heard from the Democratic Party they will challenge each ballot.

"They take the position that all of these ballot applications are presumptively invalid," said Long. "Are they right? I don't know the answer to that. You see, this has never happened in South Dakota before and we are frankly we're analyzing the law. And trying to give the states attorneys and the county auditors the best legal advice that we can. We believe that the courts ultimately will err on the side of the innocent voters and will uphold those ballots."

The executive director of South Dakota's Democratic Party would not confirm or deny their intention to Minnesota Public Radio.

The Republican Party's Executive Director Jason Gloat says if the shoe was on the other foot he doubts they would challenge the ballots.

"To our knowledge every one of those voters who requested an absentee ballot form did in fact want an absentee ballot," said Gloat. "Nobody has questioned that. This is basically a procedural error and the way those absentee ballot forms were processed."

Gloat says the Republican workers resigned earlier this month after officials discovered what was happening. Gloat says they've taken responsibility and it's time to move on.

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