Friday, September 17, 2010

Will Oglalas be disenfranchised?

Will Oglalas be disenfranchised?
Originally printed at

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – Mail-in absentee ballots can help fix the election crisis in Shannon County, according to South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson. Residents of the county, which is within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, may need them if they end up without polling places in which to cast ballots in person.

The situation reached a critical point Sept. 3, when five officials of neighboring Fall River County, including state’s attorney Jim Sword and head election official, county auditor Sue Ganje, gave 30-day notice that they’ll walk away from contracts to administer non-tribal government functions, including elections, for Shannon County. In heading for the door, Fall River County officials demolish much of Shannon County’s administrative infrastructure.

The high-drama exit was accompanied by Sword’s public, much-reported disagreement with the Shannon County Commission over the firing of a sheriff. However, it was preceded by events more directly relevant to the election, said O.J. Semans, Sicangu Lakota, executive director of voting-rights group Four Directions.

These include an April 2010 U.S. Department of Justice agreement making strict demands on Fall River County when running Shannon County elections, including early voting, and Sword’s threat to quit, according to Semans, if Shannon County requested this type of balloting. Sword disagreed, saying his resignation arose from the personnel matter.

In South Dakota, early voting is an absentee ballot cast in person at a polling place during the six weeks before an election. It’s available at county seats and satellite offices in predominantly white areas, but is typically available in Native areas for shorter periods, if at all, said attorney Greg Lembrich, legal advisor to Four Directions and a senior associate at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

It’s a popular option in Indian communities, according to Lembrich. “When early voting has been offered on reservations, as many as 46 percent of Native voters have used it.”

From Sword’s point of view, early voting is a lawsuit in the making, thanks to the “micromanaging” DOJ. “I told [DOJ] to take that out of the agreement, but they didn’t. It’s a disincentive to set up a polling place.”

On Aug. 18, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls made a request, citing South Dakota law in her letter, for a full six weeks of early voting in Shannon County – igniting the spark that led to Sept. 3.

Elephants and donkeys

Could party politics be a factor in upending Oglala election participation in what promises to be a close contest for important offices, including the sole U.S. congressional seat? Absolutely, said Ben Nesselhuf, a Democrat running for secretary of state. “None of this passes the sniff test. Sidelining thousands of Shannon County voters, who had the highest performance in the nation for the Democratic party in the last two presidential elections, is an advantage for every Republican on the statewide ballot.”

Sword said his recent switch from Democrat to Republican had nothing to do with his resignation or the national election. “That had to do with local politics. ... I wanted to support a local sheriff running for office.”

With the election beginning in days – early voting starts Sept. 18 – foot-dragging by the Republican-dominated state government would appear to help that party. 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.”

In any case, said Nelson, also a Republican, the state’s role is merely advisory. “Under South Dakota law, county governments have the primary responsibility for running elections. The law gives certain responsibilities to the secretary of state, and we fulfill those. We provide assistance, guidance, and training to help the counties.”

As far as foot-dragging goes, Nelson said, Shannon County is the entity that needs to be rushing – quickly hiring a new staff from officials of another adjacent county, as required by its charter.

The area newspaper, which has described Shannon County as “running amok,” has already interviewed some in the tiny pool of eligible candidates and reported they had “no inclination” to get involved or wanted to “steer clear.” What if they all say no?

Nelson’s advice: “In any contract negotiation, you sweeten the pot if the person doesn’t accept your offer.”

For the poorest county in the nation, that is a preposterous suggestion, said Lembrich. “If a county is too poor to afford high-priced officials, its citizens don’t get to vote? The days of the poll tax are over. It is staggering that this is happening in the 21st century.” He pointed to the Constitution and the 14th amendment requiring states to provide equal protection under the law. “It doesn’t go on to say, ‘unless states delegate authority to counties, in which case the states can wash their hands of the issues.’”

Going postal

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.” He noted the Shannon County Commission had agreed to encourage tribal members to use that option.

“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.”

Nelson was confident the situation would soon be settled. “The Shannon County commissioners are committed to getting this resolved, and as long as they carry through with their responsibilities, it’ll come together, and we’ll be in good shape.”

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