By Stephanie Woodard

Native Americans have never had an easy time getting to vote in South Dakota. In 1977, the state attorney general dismissed the Voting Rights Act as an “absurdity” and advised state officials to ignore the federal law. The state didn’t allow Native Americans into polling places until the 1940s, though federal law had given them the right to vote in 1924. In 2004, a judge stopped poll watchers from following Native Americans out of voting places and taking down their license-plate numbers.

Through the years, Native Americans in South Dakota have filed more than 20 lawsuits over their right to vote.

This month, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe went to court. In the upcoming presidential balloting, tribal members will have only six days of early voting, when the rest of the state has 46 days to cast early ballots in the primary and general elections.

Filed in federal court this month, the lawsuit contends the disparity is discriminatory, and amounts to “a denial of the right to vote.” One civic group has branded the state’s practice “a back door poll tax.”

The Oglalas’ complaint names state and county officials, including Jason Gant, secretary of state and overseer of elections for South Dakota, and the commissioners of Shannon County, which is roughly contiguous with the Oglala’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and oversees state and national elections there.

“I understand why the plaintiffs want what every other citizen gets, but we’re simply out of money,” said the head of Shannon County’s commission, Lyla Hutchison.

Gant’s official website shows he is not just secretary of state but treasurer of Committed to Victory, a PAC whose purpose is “to elect Republican candidates,” according to documents Gant (as treasurer) submitted to Gant (as secretary of state) in 2011. The website also shows Shannon County with 10 times as many Democrats as Republicans. Of 7,683 registered voters, 5,890 are Democrats; another 588 are Republicans. The rest are mostly Independents.

Oglala Lakota voting-rights plaintiffs (left to right) Dawn Black Bull, Clarice Mesteth and Donovan L. Steele leaving a conference call with their attorney Steven Sandven. / Photo courtesy of subjects.

The Oglalas’ suit demands that Gant advance impoverished Shannon County its share of Help America Vote Act funds, which are intended to facilitate the running of elections. The complaint cites the protections of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and other measures.

After the suit was filed, Gant told a local news outlet that as a matter of policy, South Dakota doesn’t provide money under the federal voting act upfront, but rather reimburses districts for election expenditures upon presentation of receipts. Federal rules do not require the practice, but rather allow states to set the terms for distributing the money, according to Bryan Whitener, a spokesman for the federal Election Assistance Commission, which provides guidance on the law.

Is the strict reimbursement requirement aimed at limiting early voting by those who are both unlikely to vote Republican and likely to cast their ballots early? “That is absolutely and utterly false,” said Gant.

In the quest for full enfranchisement, South Dakota’s Native Americans have brought lawsuits that charged gerrymandering, demands for forms of identity that are not required, failure to provide sufficient polling places and intimidation.

In 2010, the state settled an American Civil Liberties Union suit by agreeing to restore the voting rights of Native Americans who were improperly removed from voter rolls. For decades, South Dakota avoided U.S. Department of Justice “pre-clearance”–a type of oversight the Voting Rights Act applies to proposed election-law changes in places with a history of discrimination. A federal court found in 2005 that when South Dakota finally agreed to DOJ scrutiny, a backlog of more than 700 laws needed vetting.

The current Oglala lawsuit focuses on early voting, which allows voters to cast ballots at designated places prior to an election and is particularly popular among Shannon County/Pine Ridge voters. Just 15 days of early voting in 2004 doubled the election turnout over 2000, when it was not available, according to O.J. Semans, head of the voting-rights group Four Directions, headquartered on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

However, Semans noted, Shannon County had early voting in 2004–and in 2010–only because Four Directions donated $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, to pay for it. This year, the group isn’t certain it can come up with another donation, said Semans, adding that, in any case, voters shouldn’t have to rely on unpredictable outside funding to get ballot box access.

The Shannon County/Pine Ridge plaintiffs filed their complaint early in 2012 so they could get voting issues settled well before the primary, according to their lawyer, Steven D. Sandven, of Sioux Falls. “My clients don’t want a last-minute scramble for the crumbs,” he said.

The lawsuit has garnered national attention. The Justice Department is reviewing it, according to spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa, and the American Civil Liberties Union is monitoring its progress, said attorney Robert Doody, head of the organization’s South Dakota office.

In a recent interview, Gant shifted his original position on the reimbursement issue, telling 100Reporters that Shannon County’s “funding difficulties” made it a special case, and saying that he wanted “to work something out.” He identified two sets of difficulties: Short-term, he’ll see if he can somehow help the county access HAVA money for its immediate election expenses, while ensuring he continues to meet federal accounting requirements–something he has done so far via the reimbursement procedure.

However, Gant said, the existing HAVA funding will last for just a few more election cycles; then it is gone, and long-term the county has to determine how it will pay for elections in addition to its citizens’ other needs. Said Gant: “We have to figure out what we can do to assist in making sure everyone has access to the ballot box.”

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation/Shannon County, South Dakota. / Photo by Stephanie Woodard

South Dakota’s policy of reimbursing for election expenses is “nothing new,” said the state’s assistant attorney general Richard M. Williams, who represents Gant in the latest lawsuit. For years, the state’s plan for allocating HAVA money has been filed with the Election Assistance Commission, which raised no objections, Williams said. “It applies to all counties, so it plays equally across the state,” he added.

Not so, said Greg Lembrich, legal director of Four Directions and senior associate of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Reimbursements may sound reasonable, but the policy is effectively being used to delay and/or prevent counties with Indian reservations–and very tight budgets–from using HAVA funds. If you have no money to begin with, you can’t set up early voting and wait to be reimbursed.”

Back in Shannon County, its commissioners carved out the money for just six days of early voting by slashing expenditures to the bone–cutting back law enforcement and eliminating their own salaries and aid to the poor, among other items, said Hutchison. Their funds are so low because South Dakota counties tax land to finance their budgets, but most of Shannon County’s land is nontaxable, because it’s either tribally-owned or held in trust for the Oglala Sioux Tribe by the federal government, she explained.

Shannon County has other pressing economic and social issues. Its per-capita annual income of less than $8,000 makes it one of the poorest places in the nation, according to the 2010 Census. By most measures, unemployment tops 85 percent, and life expectancy for its almost entirely Native American population is comparable to Haiti’s. “For years, we were the poorest,” said Hutchison. “Now we’re second-poorest, because another mostly-Sioux county in South Dakota took our place.”

Poverty is, in fact, a major reason why area residents prize early voting. “A lot of us on Pine Ridge don’t have vehicles,” explained plaintiff and tribal member Clarice Mesteth. “During elections, those who have them drive long distances to give other people rides to the polls. Each round-trip can be a couple of hours, so having all the early-voting days we should, in addition to the general-election day, is important to us.”

Why not take advantage of early voting at the courthouse in Hot Springs, in adjacent Fall River County, which is an option for Shannon County residents? “One problem is that the round trip to Hot Springs is 4½ hours from some points in Shannon County,” said Mesteth.

“Another problem is that if you live on the [Pine Ridge Indian] reservation, your license plates start with a ’65.’ That makes us easily identifiable. The Fall River cops stop us for all kinds of things when we go there. They’ll say we were going one mile over the speed limit, or we’ve got snow on our license plates.” As a result, Mesteth said, tribal members rarely go to Hot Springs, and when they do, they car-pool to cut down on the number of traffic tickets they might receive–yet another set of hurdles on the way to the ballot box.

What about mail-in absentee ballots? “Given the hostility tribal members face when they leave the reservation, they don’t believe mail-in ballots will be counted,” said Sandven, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “Most–especially elders–feel more secure about casting votes in person.”

“Bottom line, ballot box access in South Dakota currently depends on personal wealth,” said Lembrich, who believes the state needs to establish a permanent means for providing regular early voting in Shannon County.

“You have less opportunity to vote in South Dakota if you don’t have a car, or don’t have gas money, or live on an isolated Indian reservation,” Lembrich said. “That’s not right.”

Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard

Stephanie Woodard, a member of 100Reporters, is an investigative journalist focusing on Native issues. She worked as an editor for over 20 years, and is currently a correspondent for Native-owned newsmagazine Indian Country Today. She has received Folio awards, as well as the Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Reporting.
Stephanie Woodard

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  1. i am a native american a mixed blood but still a native american i found there are still many of the white people who think it is better if we hide in caves like quote”the animals we are” un quote they consider the native american to be no more than cave men and deserve no rights …i do hate to say this but we just might have to fight much harder to have our rights restored to us the black man thought they had it bad the short time they came here as slaves back in the 1800 what about the natives of this country we have been slaves to the white man long before the blackman came here….and we still do not have all of our rights the black man got theirs now where is ours…where are our rights under the constitution…do we have any even in this new year of 2013

  2. […] Here. An excerpt: Native Americans have never had an easy time getting to vote in South Dakota. In 1977, the state attorney general dismissed the Voting Rights Act as an “absurdity” and advised state officials to ignore the federal law. The state didn’t allow Native Americans into polling places until the 1940s, though federal law had given them the right to vote in 1924. In 2004, a judge stopped poll watchers from following Native Americans out of voting places and taking down their license-plate numbers. […]