Native Sun News: Disenfranchisement looming for Indian voters
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. All content © Native Sun News.

HOT SPRINGS, SOUTH DAKOTA – Shannon County’s commissioners have extended something of an olive branch to Fall River County’s elected officials.

That olive branch symbolizes an effort on the part of the commissioners to settle their growing list of differences with Fall River County, which for years has been functioning as the government infrastructure for the unorganized Shannon County.

With that peace-talk session scheduled for Friday, Sept. 24, early voting – one of the snarls that has tangled county-level government – got underway on Thursday, Sept. 16, according to Chris Nelson, South Dakota’s secretary of state.

Voter disenfranchisement remains an issue, however, given that more than 95 percent of the Shannon County population is American Indian.

Those Oglala Lakota not only live in the country’s poorest county, but also they lack the resources for travel to a polling place – a place that, in this case, is at the Fall River County Courthouse in Hot Springs.

An alternative, of course, is for eligible Shannon County voters to apply for an absentee ballot using the U.S. Postal Service. Shannon County commissioners have agreed to pay for the absentee-ballot postage.

Taking issue with the default early-voting process is O.J. Semans, director of Four Directions, a nonprofit that has handled early voting operations for both the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“In my opinion, this was a well-thought-out and executed plan by South Dakota officials,” said Semans, who has appeared at the Shannon County commissioner’s meeting seeking, once again, to handle early voting.

“[H]ow could elected officials plan to disenfranchise thousands of Native American voters and get away with it?” asks Semans, rhetorically.

“This is what is happening right now in Shannon County,” said Semans. “Rather than provide the same voting opportunities available to citizen in the rest of South Dakota, officials in neighboring Fall River County … have chosen to resign, leaving Shannon County with no state-sanctioned election official and jeopardizing the voting rights of its residents. Even more shocking is the fact that there is evidence that this action was premeditated.”

However, that Shannon County business was on track for trouble given the fact that Fall River County’s elected officials recently submitted a letter of resignation giving Shannon County notice that Oct. 4 would be their last date of work.

That slammed things forward beyond routine government business and into the six-week window set aside for early voting in Shannon County.

.A combination of factors came into play on Thursday, Sept.16, when Shannon County’s eligible voters learned that early voting had shifted from lip service to the reality that an under-planned and under-financed voting process had fallen on its face.

No out-side-the-courthouse polling places have been established for Shannon County’s eligible voters, making early voting little more than absentee voting, where few if any staffers, including poll watchers, have been fielded.

On Sept. 20, Nelson said that Sue Ganje, Fall River County’s auditor, was “doing all the things she would normally do, including directing the early voting” for Shannon County’s participation in the general election, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 2.

“No doubt, there will be an election for Shannon County voters,” Nelson said. “There’s a huge challenge here. Wisely, the commission wants to patch things up. That would be the best solution.”

Dismissing official state involvement in the voting process, Nelson said his office does not have the legal authority to step into a process that’s been assigned, in the state constitution, to the county auditors.

“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.

“Now that this action has occurred, putting the election in Shannon County in limbo, those statewide elected officials are declining to take action to insure that the voting rights of citizens of Shannon County are protected,” he added.

Noting that on election day Shannon County voters will have no polling places for casting their ballots, Semans contends that the American Indians in Shannon County “are being denied equal voting rights and “may be disenfranchised” entirely.

Nelson declined to offer details of a back-up plan, but insisted that it exists.

“Any person can go to the courthouse in Hot Springs to get an absentee ballot and mail it in,” he said. “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,” said Nelson, who added that it would, however, “in the worst-case scenario.”

Nelson also said that the Secretary of State’s office and the State Attorney General’s office “are committed” to making early voting work for Shannon County, as well as the peace-offering meeting set for Sept. 24.

“These are locally elected officials and it is fact that they are struggling with them (the problems), but they are going to be living together for a long, long time, so it’s appropriate that they have to work things out,” Nelson said.

Nelson also dismissed the idea that the Oglala Sioux Tribe step in to run the entire election, including the early voting.

“The state is barred from doing so by constitutional law and the tribe, under the home rule charter, also is forbidden to do so,” added Nelson, who said that 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,” said Nelson, who also reminded voters that they can go to his office’s website for an absentee ballot and one of his staffers “ will mail it” to the voter.

Nonetheless, Semans shares some political history to situation by reminding voters that Sword, on May 24, Sword changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican. In a subsequent meeting on Aug. 3, Semans said he met with Sword about early voting.

“Sword stated that if a request for early voting were made, he would resign his responsibilities to Shannon County and strongly urge the county auditor – Sue Ganje – to do so as well,” said Semans, who also indicated that Sword told him that he had “already discussed the possibility with Jackley and Nelson, both Republicans.

However, as the early voting discussion surfaced, Sword distributed copies of the resignation letter signed by him and all other elected officials handling Shannon County’s business. Sword also urged the commissioners to consider the material “before he made his decision,” a statement seen by some as a not-so-veiled threat.

“This left Shannon County without any election officials to conduct the 2010 general election and the votes of thousands of citizens in limbo,” said Semans, who has suggested the situation is a matter of conspiracy to deny Shannon County voters their equal rights to the ballot box.

“In addition to disenfranchising Native Americans, the strategy is also a shameless partisan play to suppress Democratic voters and assist Republicans candidates,” said Semans, who noted that Shannon County voters “historically vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”

Stepping out even further, Semans said that by “disenfranchising thousands of Native American voters who happen to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, Jackley, Nelson and Sword will have gone a long way toward guaranteeing a victory for their party’s candidates in November,” said Semans.

“These citizens want to participate in the political process and their voices are entitled to be heard,” said Semans. “Instead, the state … consistently disregards them as second-class citizens and refuses to respect their rights as Americans.”

“The shameful story of how the rights of minority voters are being violated in South Dakota should shock the conscience of a nation that believes in equal justice for all,” he said.

“This current situation is just the latest chapter in a long, sad story,” he said.

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