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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Voting Rights Call for Action: Pierre Should Guarantee Shannon County Balloting

I take voting for granted. I assume that I can walk into the Lake County Courthouse during business hours any time between now and Election Day and and fill in my ballot.

I guess I'm lucky I'm not living in Shannon County... and part of a key Democratic-leaning constituency that the state's Republicans would love to see miss the vote:

Native Americans have long faced police harassment, illegal voter challenges, and election-day chaos on the way to the polls in South Dakota. Those problems may soon be over on the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That's because South Dakota has no clear plan to provide any voting at all in this fall's election.

The imminent disenfranchisement of thousands of voters follows resignations of officials in the off-reservation county that handled outsourced, non-tribal government services, including elections, for Pine Ridge's Shannon County. However, the crisis may also have arisen because Oglalas, members of the nation's most marginalized ethnic group, have emerged as deciders in South Dakota elections -- as have tribes in other areas since 2000, when Native support helped send Washington state's Maria Cantwell to the U.S. Senate. With Shannon County voters turning in the nation's highest Democratic performance in recent presidential elections, sidelining them is a game-changer in close contests, including this year's race for the state's sole Congressional seat, held by Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

South Dakota's head election official, Secretary of State Chris Nelson, has taken a hands-off approach to the problem, saying the counties involved should solve it. If they don't, said Attorney General Marty Jackley, who's up for re-election, "the state will weigh the need to take action" [Stephanie Woodard, "South Dakota Election Scandal: Are Oglala Sioux Voting Rights Doomed?" Huffington Post, 2010.09.20].

I might be able to appreciate Secretary Nelson's fatherly, "you kids settle your own differences" approach, if we weren't talking about a fundamental Constitutional (federal and state) right. Shannon and Fall River counties may need to untwist their own knickers, but the state has an obligation to ensure every eligible South Dakotan has the same opportunity to vote. Our right to vote should not hinge on a bureaucratic spat or any other vagary of local government.

I can vote every business day at my courthouse. Every citizen of Shannon County and every other jurisdiction in South Dakota should have the same opportunity. Secretary Nelson should deputize a couple folks in his office, give them a van loaded with ballots and a couple strong metal boxes, and send them with a Highway Patrol escort to set up an absentee polling place in Pine Ridge.
Bonus: Chat with Secretary Nelson live online this morning at 9 a.m. Mountain (that's 40 minutes from the time of this posting!) on the Rapid City Journal's live web chat, hosted by Kevin Woster.


  1. "if we weren't talking about a fundamental Constitutional (federal and state) right. Shannon and Fall River counties may need to untwist their own knickers, but the state has an obligation to ensure every eligible South Dakotan has the same opportunity to vote."

    Just curious, but where does this obligation come from?

  2. Orwellian or Kafkaesque, maybe. Cory, I read that article to say that "thousands" of votes are affected. Do you see that as realistic?

  3. Douglas: 14th Amendment? Voting Rights Act? South Dakota Constitution, Article 7?

    Larry: As of September 1, Shannon County had 7356 registered voters. 78% happen to be Dems... but I'm as interested in seeing the 8% of Shannonites who are Repubs get the same opportunity to vote.

  4. Well Cory, I looked at the links and I see that citizens should not be discriminated against, etc, but I don't see any statement of obligation of the state to provide special exceptions for special voters who have themselves elected representatives whose actions have effectively destroyed their own voting system.

    Voters in that district elected commissioners who shot their election in the foot. It would seem they have the obligation and responsibility to undo their destructive actions rather than pleading for adults to step in and clean up their mess.

  5. Douglas, that's why I paused, too. Sec. Nelson seems to be saying, "You locals messed things up; you locals fix it." I understand that argument... and will probably use a similar argument on my daughter when warranted.

    But I'm trying to think of a good comparison. Suppose here in Lake County we elected some real meatheads to county commission, states attorney, and sheriff. Suppose they do their jobs so poorly that they alienate every lawyer in the area and make it impossible for the county to provide public defenders for trials. Yes, it's our fault for electing idiots; yes, we should be held accountable and pay for fixing the system. But there are still defendants going through the system with a right to legal representation. If I'm in Pierre, I may not want to incur expense for local idiocy, but that next level of government exists to ensure that Constitutional rights still penetrate barriers created by local idiocy. If the locals aren't providing for basic Constitutional rights, the state should come in to ensure those rights.

    I like this argument, but I'm not entirely confident with it. I look forward to other perspectives!

  6. (clears throat...ahem...)

    Ummm... guys... you may recall that in the year 2000 the Supreme Court of the United States of America decided that Floridians in certain counties should not be able to have their votes recounted (as per Al Gore's attorney's request) because that would disenfranchise those voters in other counties who wouldn't get to have their votes recounted as well.

    So in essence, the highest court in the land trumped the State of Florida's Supreme Court decision.

    I believe the legal cite was as Cory suggests. The 14th Amendment. So yes, this is a Federal issue.


  7. Both sides are acting like mules.

    Quickly put the egos aside or this will turn out real bad.

  8. Or real good, Thad; Jimmy Carter on the ground in South Dakota? How would that be bad?

  9. I'm having a vision of a close election and missing ballot boxes from Shannon County. I also see the rooms at Praire Wind Cssino booked up with lawyers.


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