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BELTRAMI COUNTY: Making history and breaking history

Absentee voting site proposed in Red Lake; Beltrami Historical Society requests reinstatement of appropriation funds

BEMIDJI -- Beltrami County’s budget and tax levy setting season is drawing near. Coincidentally, commissioners heard from two entities Tuesday requesting funds from the county.

A new voting law has created a potential need for an absentee voting location in Red Lake, which was pitched as being at no cost to the county, well, for the first year of operation.

After the voting conversation, Beltrami County Historical Society Executive Director Dan Karalus was up to ask for a monetary contribution. Karalus’ request comes after the joint Beltrami County and city of Bemidji meeting July 1 where city councilwoman Nancy Erickson proposed the county kick in for operational funding for the historical society.

Changes to election law The Minnesota Legislature passed a change to state election law which allows for no-excuse absentee voting. This new law will affect the 2014 elections and voters in Beltrami County, including Red Lake.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians tribal council has received assistance from River Bluffs Strategies and Four Directions to establish a polling place for absentee voters who live more than 30 miles from the county seat. River Bluffs Strategies is based out of South Dakota.

“Ten years ago, South Dakota and Montana did the same thing that Minnesota did this year,” explained Bret Healy with River Bluffs Strategies and Four Directions. “That is, they went to no-excuse absentee voting. Therefore, you no longer have to have any reason at all to cast an absentee ballot prior to the election.”

Healy said Four Directions is an organization that has been working in Indian Country for the past decade on equal voting opportunities for Native Americans. Voting projects have been conducted in South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada and Arizona.

The U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs clarifies that American Indians and Alaska Natives are citizens of the United States and of their individual states, counties, cities and towns where they live. Native Americans are also able to become citizens of their tribes or villages as enrolled tribal members.

“The tribe has always been interested in encouraging people to get out to vote,” said Michelle Pacquin-Johnson, tribal legal advisor for the Red Lake Band. Pacquin-Johnson is also co-chair for the Red Lake Political Education Committee, which is a volunteer group in operation since 1992. Pacquin-Johnson explained there really isn’t an Ojibwe word for vote, so in the committee’s last get-out-the-vote campaign, the closest word “biinjwebinigedaa”, which means to participate, was used in its place.

“It would be for us, very advantageous, not only for the reservation but for all of northern Beltrami County to have a place that is in between the county seat here in Bemidji,” Pacquin-Johnson said.

Bemidji is located at the southern end of the county, approximately 30 miles from Red Lake.

“It makes sense from a geographic standpoint,” said commissioner Jim Lucachick.

The Red Lake Indian Reservation is in the center of commissioner Tim Sumner’s district.

“I like the idea, I’m with the rest of you. I think everybody should be able to vote in an election,” Sumner said. “I think this would be a good access point for neighbors. It’s an opportunity for us to be a leader because Beltrami County is known a lot of times for being the first.”

Healy said most often the county seat is not on an American Indian reservation, which can cause unequal access because of distance. The change in law increases opportunities to cast a ballot up to 46 days before an election by removing stipulations such as indicating why a person will not be able to vote in person on Election Day. Now, any eligible voter may vote by absentee ballot.

While the intent is altruistic it comes with a cost.

“There will be no cost to the county,” Healy said.

However, when questioned by commissioner Joe Vene, Healy admitted funds are committed only for the first year by “philanthropic donors” via Four Directions. The funding is not perpetual.

“It’s an $8,000 investment if you will,” Healy said. “For the 2014, first stab at this, we have donors committed.”

Healy said funding to run a satellite polling location figures in staffing, travel and miscellaneous office costs.

Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack explained the decision to add an additional designated location falls to the current auditor/treasurer, JoDee Treat. During the past week, Treat researched what adding the Red Lake office would entail, including computer access at the site and an assisted voting machine as required by the Secretary of State’s office.

“I would have to have the same required specifications as I have in my office,” Treat said.

Those specifications include two judges to run the absentee voting and a precinct in an existing polling place in Red Lake. Voters would also need to vote at their home precinct. Treat said the state also recommended she run any deviations to the Secretary of State’s recommendations by the county attorney to be sure they comply with the statute.

“I wasn’t aware it would be open for other precincts,” Treat said. “I would need to get the county attorney’s opinion.”

Commissioner Richard Anderson agreed clarification is needed on where people from all precincts would vote.

Mack, the previous voting authority in Beltrami County, said on an administrative level, Treat and Pacquin-Johnson are the key people who would be working together to make the office work for both Beltrami County and Red Lake.

“It’s in the auditor’s authority, not the county board. It isn’t the board’s to take action on,” Mack said. She added that if the opportunity was extended to every person 30 miles from the county seat, “That’s a lot of $8,000 bills.”

Lucachick “respectfully” disagreed on the authority aspect stating it is a countywide impact and should involve the county board’s action. Lucachick said in past years, he inquired on absentee voting and aside from the polling place costs, additional soft costs would incur. He also said the new law was another “state/federal unfunded mandate” for counties to work into their budgets.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians 2014 run-off election for candidates who will fill the secretary, treasurer and Red Lake, Redby and Little Rock representative positions will be held Wednesday.

History with the historical society A past partnership of funding between the county and the historical society that bears the county’s name was discussed during Tuesday’s meeting. Spurred by the conversation between the county and city, Dan Karalus, Beltrami County Historical Society executive director, presented some historical figures to the board.

Beltrami County voted to stop appropriating $20,000 in operational funding support for the historical society in 2003. The Beltrami County Historical Society has since received grants from the county’s development fund based on projects. From 2005 to this year, the county has granted amounts ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 based on individual projects.

Karalus reminded commissioners that statutorily counties are “empowered” to provide space, utilities and funds or levy taxes for historical work at historical societies. Commissioners agreed that while they may be empowered, they are not required.

Karalus asked commissioners to consider a 50 cent per capita appropriation, which is less than what counties comparable in size have asked of residents. Itasca County has a population of 45,000 and residents pay 89 cents per capita; Kandiyohi County, with a population of 42,000 asks $1.33 per person per capita.

Commissioner Jack Frost said if the board were to entertain Karalus’ request, they would be deviating from a past vote to not provide operational support for interest groups, thus setting a precedent.

Karalus said the historical society would be able to provide better services to the community if it were able to extend its hours. The historical society is currently open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Karalus, who has been director for the past year, said the Beltrami County History Center has had an annual average of 2,000 visitors the past two years. In years prior some have estimated that number was as high as between 5,000 to 7,000. Commissioner Lucachick said the board would need to see solid figures on visits to know if extended operating hours would be beneficial.

“Show us your numbers are growing and there will be a better opportunity for funding,” Lucachick said.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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