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Election workers are seated at the table at Rockyford School on election day, Nov. 5. Seated behind them are Republican and Democratic monitors, there to oversee how the polling is conducted. Attorney General Mark Barnett only a few Republican National Committee affidavits merit investigation. (Heidi Bell Gease/Journal staff)

Barnett: No election rip-off
By Denise Ross, Journal Staff Writer

Of 50 affidavits the Republican National Committee turned over to the South Dakota Attorney General's Office, one allegation so far merits further investigation, Attorney General Mark Barnett has said.

"Many of the things alleged simply are not crimes," Barnett said. "Those affidavits simply do not give me cause to think there was an election rip-off."

The Republican National Committee gathered the affidavits from South Dakota poll watchers in the wake of Republican John Thune's 524-vote loss to Democrat Tim Johnson in South Dakota's nationally watched U.S. Senate election on Nov. 5. Party officials turned the documents over to prosecutors about two weeks ago.

Barnett will open investigations into claims that voters were offered money to vote.

"It's the two or three affidavits out of 50 that really jumped out and grabbed me as something I need to follow up on," Barnett said. "I don't express any opinion on whether those affidavits are true or can be proved. We're going to have those interviews done."

Barnett said one affidavit is from a voter who claims she was offered money, and two others are from people who claim to have overheard others saying they were offered money.

Beyond that, he said, most other allegations amount to either complaining or low-level civil violations.

"Realistically, many of the things set out in those affidavits are not crimes. They are what I would call local election-board management problems," Barnett, a Republican, said. "A fair number could be read as complaints about how effective the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort was. They had people watching, then jumping on the phone to one of their drivers."

None of the allegations in the affidavits would change the election outcome, Barnett said.

South Dakota's U.S. attorney, Jim McMahon, said he and his staff have reviewed the affidavits, but he said he won't comment on the matter.

"It's my policy not to comment on whether or not we're doing an investigation," he said.

The Republican National Committee would not provide copies of the affidavits to the Rapid City Journal. A spokeswoman last week cited "privacy reasons."

The RNC issued a written statement Monday: "The information that the attorney general reviewed is only one area of the problems reported with the election. This is not just about criminal activity but about how the people of South Dakota carry out their elections. They will have to decide at both the local level and the state Legislature whether changes need to be made to the system."

Johnson spokesman Bob Martin repeated his call for Thune to speak out about the RNC's work.

"John Thune could make this stop if he wanted to. He's got the best of all worlds right now. He's Mr. Clean politician supposedly bowing out gracefully. He could stop this sniping if he wanted to. It's just unfounded allegations," Martin said.

Thune staffers referred all questions to the RNC.

Other claims laid out in the affidavits are of voters offering multiple names until poll workers found a match; that election workers placed a sticker over a lightly colored-in Thune vote so a machine could count other votes on the ballot, and of a high degree of coordination between poll workers in some precincts and workers for the Democratic Party.

Barnett bristled at complaints in about a half-dozen affidavits that the polls at several locations were open too long due to confusion over which time zone to follow. The locations lie just west of the line between the Central and Mountain time zones. The community generally operates on Central time, which is an hour earlier than Mountain time.

Barnett offered an on-the-spot Election Day legal opinion about what to do when poll workers inadvertently opened the polls at 7 a.m. Central time, an hour too early according to the law.

"Saying the polls were open too long is not an accurate way to describe it. It was opened too early," Barnett said. "Several affidavits assume that Democratic operatives are the ones who made it stay open. That's not accurate. It was Republican officials who made the decision, myself among them."

State law does not say polls shall be open for 12 hours, he said. The law says polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., local time.

"If you screw up and open at 6, you don't fix a morning screw-up by doing an evening screw-up," Barnett said. "If a voter had walked up to a polling place at 6:30 p.m. and found a padlocked door, we would have had the clearest case of a voter-rights violation that I ever heard of. If statute says you're open until 7, you're open until 7."

Barnett said that in other affidavits, people complain about vans featuring Johnson campaign signs delivering voters to the polls, of Democrats organizing get-out-the-vote work from inside polling places and of Democrats monopolizing a telephone at one polling place.

In response to the campaign signs, Barnett said: "Yes, it's correct, they should not have those signs. But in practical terms, people with bumper stickers violate that all the time. Are we going to arrest them all?" He said he understands that the vans were moved away from polling places when poll watchers complained.

Of the telephone use, he said, "That is not likely to change the outcome of the election, nor is it a crime."

Of the get-out-the-vote work at polling places, he said: "That's not a crime. That's a lesson plan."

Contact Denise Ross at 394-8438 or denise.ross@rapidcityjournal.com

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