Between The Lines: Gant should focus on campaign promise

A decision by Secretary of State Jason Gant to reject the nominating petition of a Madison farmer who wants to run for the state Legislature was overturned by Circuit Judge Mark Barnett of Pierre earlier this week.

Gant, who serves as the state's chief election officer, had rejected the nominating petition filed by Charles Johnson because it stated on one line that signers were from Lake County instead of from District 8, which includes three other counties.

Barnett ruled that Johnson's nominating petition substantially complied with legal requirements because another line clearly said Johnson is running for the state Senate in District 8.

"I find no one was misled," Barnett said.

Barnett ruled in the case at the end of a brief hearing, saying he needed to issue a decision quickly in case Gant decides to appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court. Gant said a decision on a possible appeal would be made later.

Our suggestion to Gant: Move on. Let the judge's ruling stand. Don't appeal.

Especially because another one of your rulings may also soon be reversed.

Barnett has tentatively scheduled another hearing for Friday to decide if a second Democrat, David Mitchell, a professor at Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, should be on the ballot as a state House candidate. We are predicting that Gant will also vigorously defend his decision to reject Mitchell's petition. The document, like Johnson's, contains a very minor flaw – a blank that was mistakenly left empty by the candidate. We're no legal experts, but we'll bet that Barnett may likely rule that there is nothing misleading about Mitchell's petition.

The South Dakota Democratic Party filed the court complaint against Gant in an attempt to get Johnson and Mitchell onto the ballot.

In Monday's hearing, the judge said Gant acted properly when he rejected Johnson's nominating petition because the state's top election officer must strictly apply the laws and rules. If Gant, a Republican, used discretion to decide which flawed petitions substantially comply with the law, he could be accused of favoring one political party over another, Barnett said.

Here's the rub, however. The county auditor who issued Johnson the nominating petitions mistakenly typed "Lake County" instead of "District 8" on a blank line of the document when it was issued to Johnson. A second blank in the same sentence of the petition was correctly filled in with the words "state Senate for District 8" to describe Johnson's candidacy.

As Barnett noted, no one was misled.

In a perfect world, nominating petitions would all be filled out perfectly. They would be filed by individuals hoping to seek election to public office with plenty of time for review in the rare case that a mistake happened.

Humans are far from perfect, however. And while we understand that Gant had to strictly follow state law, it would be nice if some common sense could be injected into the process of deciding whether or not to accept a petition that contains a minor flaw.  Johnson's petition wasn't misleading, and it's a bit counterproductive, we believe, for citizens to have to go to extremes – in this case, filing suit against the secretary of state – to get a minor issue settled.

Another thing that's a bit disturbing is that any John Q. Citizen who wishes to be placed on an election ballot despite a minor technical error on his petition must become immersed in a legal tussle that involves the top lawyers employed by the state. Gant was represented at Monday's hearing by Assistant Attorney General Rich Williams.

Faced with such odds, we wonder if the average Joe would even bother with what could be an expensive adventure simply to challenge a technical error. Would this issue even have been resolved if Ben Nesselhuf and the state Democratic Party hadn't stepped in to help?

Gant, a former Republican legislator, defeated Nesselhuf, a Vermillion Democrat, in the secretary of state's race in the 2010 election. Gant included this message on his campaign web site:

"As South Dakota's next Secretary of State, Jason will work with County Auditors across South Dakota to ensure that we have the best election practices in place."

It appears that Gant still has some work to do before he can claim that campaign promise has been fulfilled.

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SPEAKING OF HUMAN ERROR: Clarification is needed concerning the story "Howe: More industry will reduce local poverty" that appeared on the front page of the Plain Talk last week. The story worked well, packaged with a second story on the front describing the summer meals program that will be offered in Vermillion this summer. Those two stories, in turn, inspired last week's Between the Lines, entitled "We applaud efforts to ease local hunger."

Here's the bad news: The story involving Howe was first published almost exactly a year ago. Through human error, it resurfaced last week from the depths of our computer files and made it into our schedule of page 1 stories. We apologize to our readers about this, and especially to Steve Howe, the executive director of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company, whose year-old comments appeared to be fresh news in last week's Plain Talk. 

Here's the good news: The efforts of Howe and other community leaders have made a positive difference in Vermillion in the year since that story was first published. As Howe mentioned, however, as he graciously accepted my apology during a phone conversation this week, the report is still relevant. As I noted in this column last week, Howe deserves a lot of credit for not being shy about talking about local poverty while discussing the challenges our county and community faces. We also believe his candor about this issue, combined with hard work, is partly responsible for the success of Vermillion Now! and the progressive resources it now provides as our community seeks new opportunities for its citizens. DL

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