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In her timely diaries and action updates the indefatigable Aji has called attention to the thinly veiled attempt at voter disenfranchisement happening in SD.  This is happening because (1) it can, and (2) it always does and (3) because there is a very close SD-AL Congressional race between Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Republican challenger Kristi Noem.

Here is one more thing you can do to stop this from happening. Support Dem. Candidate for Secretary of State: Ben Nesselhuf. and Democratic candidate for Attorney General: Ron Volesky.

Voter registration has just closed in South Dakota. Prior to ending, Democrats held three "feeds", traditional Native American gatherings, on Lower Brule, Crow Creek and on Pine Ridge reservations. They were attended by statewide and local Democratic candidates and offered attendees food, information, and rides to the polls for early voting.  The SD Republican Party has called for an investigation, saying this violates SD law:

Republican officials say the rallies appear (my emphasis) to violate state and federal law, because the events linked the offering of food with the opportunity to early vote.

The SD Atty General and the US Atty have issued a statement.  They have NOT said that the Democratic events were illegal.  

(T)heir letter, sent to both parties, did not indicate whether the Democratic events violated the law... it was unclear Friday whether the attorney general’s office or the U.S. attorney’s office planned any further action beyond the letter they sent Thursday. Spokespersons with both offices declined to say what, if anything, their offices were doing with the Republican complaint.

Jim Leach, a lawyer representing the party, dismissed the Republican call for an investigation as "campaign attacks with no legal basis. There is nothing illegal about providing food at campaign rallies," he said. "The South Dakota Democratic Party has acted absolutely and completely legally." Democratic officials also pointed out that Republicans have held events in the past that included food... (T)hey highlighted a Sept. 22 rally in Pennington County hosted by GOP gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard and congressional candidate Kristi Noem. The South Dakota Republican Party hosted the event, and it included hot dogs, chips and beverages... But Republican officials responded that their events were not in the same category because... (t)he Sept. 22 event, for example, occurred in the evening after early voting had closed for the day.

Since absentee ballots in SD can be MAILED - dropped in a mailbox anytime of the day or night - as well as voted in person, I'm not sure how sponsoring an event after early voting "closes for the day" prevents the so-called abuse alleged by the Republicans.  But I'm not a lawyer.

The US Attorney is Brendan Johnson, an Obama appointee and son of SD Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat. The SD Attorney General is Marty Jackley, a Republican appointed in 2009 who is now running for re-election against Ron Volesky.

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In a related story called to attention by dharmafarmer (with photos) officials in Shannon County, the home of Pine Ridge and the Badlands Natl Park, responsible for running the election had threatened to resign en masse largely over opposition to allowing early voting in the county.  The opposition would have meant that Shannon County residents would have had to vote in a neighboring county. A last minute meeting led to an agreement to open an early voting site at Pine Ridge saving voters there the 128-mile round trip to Hot Springs in Fall River County.

This happened before.  

"Citizens in 64 of the 66 counties in South Dakota enjoy the right to cast their votes beginning six weeks prior to Election Day... The two counties that have been denied this right? Todd and Shannon Counties, which have Native populations of 85 and 95 percent respectively," said Greg Lembrich (in Oct. 2008), a litigator ... working pro bono with South Dakota's Native American nonprofit group, Four Directions, to try to resolve this issue. Because Todd and Shannon County are "unincorporated," they do not have county governments. Instead, elections for these two areas are controlled by officials in neighboring counties. These officials have claimed that they lack the resources to provide an early voting location within Todd or Shannon County.

"But there’s money to solve this problem from the Federal government, and it’s not lost on any of us that only in predominately Indian regions is the ability to vote early being blocked," said Lembrich. Lembrich adds that, by taking away the rights of citizens to vote early closer to their own communities, the state is essentially taking away the rights of these groups to vote early at all. Given that the nearest polling stations are typically more than a hour’s drive away on bad roads, and only one in three households on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations own a working car, allowing citizens more time to vote is crucial.

Although voters can mail in their vote, this requires either copies of approved photo ID (like a drivers license) or notarization.  The extra cost and inconvenience of obtaining these so-called anti-fraud measures may seem minimal to those of us who live elsewhere but they are significant deterrents to people who live in a beautiful but remote location, and to those who cope with financial hardship, high unemployment, poor health and for too many, even such basics as phone service or electricity, much less a nearby notary public. However, SOS

Nelson also rejected the importance of early voting on Indian reservations. "This issue of people saying they have to drive 100 miles to vote is nonsense. Folks have always been able to mail in an application and get a [regular absentee] ballot mailed back. That’s been around forever..."

"As a fan of democracy, I’m holding my head," said Nesselhuf at this suggestion. Absentee voting is a multi-step procedure that starts with obtaining and mailing in an application and ends with photocopying a form of identification to post with the ballot, once it’s received and completed, he explained. "Is Nelson serious? Do most people on reservations have copiers available? In any case, this is not equal access to the vote."

Lembrich recalled the last time he needed a photocopy on Pine Ridge. "I had to drive to the tribal hall. In fact, mail-in ballots would be especially cumbersome there. Shannon County is not asking for anything special during this election – only the same access to voting other citizens have."

 

This year's grandstanding was premeditated.

"A month before the Fall River County officials submitted their resignations, Fall River’s state’s attorney, Jim Sword, told Four Directions, a Native American voting rights advocacy group, that he had already discussed the possibility of such resignations with South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley and South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson," said Semans.

 O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, is executive director of voting-rights group Four Directions.

 
And what was the State of South Dakota's response? Too bad, so sad.

(Sec. of State) Nelson declined to offer details of a back-up plan, but insisted that it exists... "I’m not willing to talk about the back-up plan with regard to what the state can wield" in such situations.

"The state has delegated elections to the county governments and we are not a delegation to go and take over.., so it’s appropriate that they have to work things out," Nelson said...  (A)dded Nelson.., the non-profit Help America Vote has allowed him to authorize funds for election-centered materials for both Shannon and Todd counties.

"All I do with that funding is remind them that if they spend it all for this, they may not have enough left over for that."

Republican Attorney General Marty Jackley refused to comment on politicking by his side, but confirmed the state was in a wait-and-see mode. "It is our position that these matters need to work through the local proceedings. To the extent that they are not resolved, the state will weigh the need to take action."

They fought it to the end. This Huffington Post report details the process by which the election issue was settled.  A taste:

(Semans) announced that the voting-rights nonprofit he heads, Four Directions, would pay for it. With money problems solved and the election official back at work, the logic of equal suffrage seemed impeccable. But the election-averse fought on, calling for early voting to be limited to 8 days. They lobbed obstacles into the fray...

One more objection: What if they get used to voting? We're afraid of setting a precedent.

___________________________________

So where does that leave the issue? Republicans will pursue a complaint especially if Rep. Herseth Sandlin defeats Noem.  And Republican dominated state officials will continue to turn a blind eye towards the effective disenfranchisement of Native American voters who just happen to be a strong and important Democratic bloc in the state.  

If voting rights are to be enforced in a way that actually helps voters vote, rather than sidelining certain blocs, South Dakota needs state officials who will do their job and not engage in partisan tactics.

Someone like Ben Nesselhof, who last June explained his position:

I have served in the state legislature for the past 10 years... you would think that I have seen every outrageous act and viewpoint imaginable... Then I started looking at the changes that were made to the voting process in South Dakota in the past few years and how that impacted our Native American population. I was appalled.

In South Dakota we have 66 counties. In 64 of them the voters have 6 weeks of no excuse, early access voting... I don’t need a reason other than I want to vote early. There are 2 counties where there is no access to early voting within the county. These 2 are Shannon and Todd counties. Both of these counties are entirely within Indian reservations. This represents almost 24,000 people, over 90% of which are Native American. They have a very high Democrat performance. In fact, in the past 2 presidential elections, Shannon County had a higher percentage of Democrat votes than any other county in the United States.

These people are being systematically disenfranchised by a Secretary of State (who is termed out and just lost a primary for Congress) that doesn’t seem to want to fix the problem. The Help America Vote Act has provided $130,000 to the State of South Dakota to alleviate this problem. These funds can only be used to help the people in these two counties vote. Not one dime of it has been spent and nothing has been done.  

Shannon and Todd are 2 of the 5 poorest counties in the United States. The way they are being treated is shameful and, I believe, a violation of the Voter Rights Act. As the next Secretary of State of South Dakota, I will ensure that the thousands of Native Americans on these reservations are given the same access to the ballot as all of the other people in South Dakota. They deserve no less.

What does his Republican opponent think? Jason Gant is outraged by the "Democrat's food for votes" scandal and very quiet about early voting.

"I am truly surprised by the continued practice of trading food for votes used by the Democratic Party and I am also shocked at the arrogance with which they defend such a practice... The Democratic Party has been warned about this type of activity in the past and they appear to be openly mocking South Dakota’s law enforcement and election laws... The United States Attorney’s Office and local and state law enforcement should be investigating this conduct immediately... Voter fraud is a serious issue that should not be taken lightly. When I am elected as your next Secretary of State I will work to ensure this practice is abolished and anyone engaging in this kind of activity will be dealt with."

Senator Gant concluded, "This travesty dovetails into exactly what I have been warning South Dakotans about throughout this campaign. We must protect our elections. We cannot allow outside groups, or in this case South Dakota groups, to make a mockery of our elections."

Ron Volesky, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a Harvard grad, says

"I intend to win the state attorney general’s race on Nov. 2... It’s shaping up to be a tough race," said Volesky, who faces the state’s incumbent attorney general, Marty Jackley, a Republican running in a state that has been dominated by GOP officeholders at the statewide level for decades. Winning the American Indian vote is fundamental to Volesky’s campaign and the former 16-year veteran of the South Dakota State Legislature wastes no time letting the voting public know that.

"We are making a strong effort on the reservations to get out the vote," said Volesky, insisting that he has "deep concerns" about the "situation in Shannon County" – a situation that threatens to disenfranchise Lakota voters. "Were I the attorney general – a position that I consider to be the second most powerful in the state – there would be no doubt that I would be down there. I would personally go to Shannon County to gather information and make decisions. That just has to be done." said Volesky, who was born in Bullhead on Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

"It’s a travesty and someone needs to speak out," he said. "It takes some effort by someone who cares and that doesn’t seem to be the attitude put forth by the current top leadership in South Dakota."

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ACT HERE
Volesky had been a Democratic candidate for Governor of SD before dropping out of that race and endorsing Scott Heidepriem. According to year-end campaign finance reports, Volesky hadn't raised or spent any money.

He can be contacted at his Huron Office:  356 Dakota Avenue South
Huron, SD 57350  Phone: (605) 352-2126  Fax: (605) 352-7871

Ben Nesselhuf can be contacted at his campaign website.  He is also being supported by the Act Blue Secretary of State Project and donations can be made at the link.

(Chi Miigwech and Thanks to Aji with links to her contact-rich diaries at the top and to Ojibway's Diluting the American Indian Vote for their essential input.  I wish I could link to all the disenfranchisement diaries but they seem to be increasing every time I check. Look for them in the recommended diaries.)  

UPDATED

We knew the Republican Party had filed a complaint. We just weren't supposed to know the status of that complaint. But now we do. And the same guy who opposed early voting for Shannon County

Jim Sword, the state’s attorney for Fall River and Shannon counties, sent the Department of Justice a memo outlining potential voting abuses, including an advertisement that linked a chili feed with the opportunity to vote for Democratic candidates.

But here is an interesting take on folllowing the rules: (same source)

SD Attorney General (and Republican candidate for re-election) Marty Jackley

confirmed today that his office is investigating whether three rallies held by Democrats last week violated state law by offering people food in exchange for a chance to cast early ballots.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said today that Department of Justice policy forbids officials from discussing the existence or likelihood of an investigation.

IOKIYAR?  Stay tuned...

UPDATED to link to Ojibway diary about Ron Volesky.

Originally posted to meralda on Tue Oct 19, 2010 at 05:17 PM PDT.

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