Elephants, Donkeys, Billionaires—and Another Stunning Native Vote Win
UPDATED February 28, 2014: On February 26, South Dakota approved use of its federal Help America Vote Act funds for satellite early-voting and registration offices in three Indian-reservation towns—Wanbli on Pine Ridge, Fort Thompson on Crow Creek and Eagle Butte on Cheyenne River. These communities meet race-neutral criteria developed by voting-rights group Four Directions. The standards, which will be applied to future requests for satellite offices from any South Dakota communities, include relative distance from the county seat and rate of poverty, which limits voters’ ability to bridge the gap. Other reservation satellite offices exist in Pine Ridge village, following a federal lawsuit, and in Mission, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
Recently, we learned about two Native voting-rights wins in one day in Montana. Today, we turn to the neighboring state of South Dakota for the third breakthrough that same day.
On January 22 in Pierre, a state senate committee was considering a bill to prevent non-governmental groups from helping cash-strapped counties afford early-voting offices on Indian reservations. The proposed ban was the brainchild of South Dakota’s secretary of state and top elections officer Jason Gant.
Part of the state’s Republican administration, Gant has also opposed using Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds to assist Native voting and fought (unsuccessfully) in federal court to curtail early voting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Testifying before the committee, Gant called the donations part of a “slippery slope.” He raised the specter of “a billionaire coming from New York” and chucking money and influence around the state. Skeptical committee members got Gant to admit that the only non-governmental entity helping fund precincts of any kind is a small in-state Native voting-rights nonprofit called Four Directions. Gant also acknowledged that without Four Directions donations, “I wouldn’t know what the future would hold for those places.”
Four Directions head OJ Semans, who is Rosebud Sioux, testified against the bill, calling voting “the bedrock of our democracy” and pointing to the value of participation. Said Semans: “To improve their social and economic conditions, tribes and tribal members have to participate in the electoral process.”
Semans added that approving the bill and cutting off the early-voting offices would tell Native citizens, “We don’t want you to participate.”
More opposing testimony came from Rep. Kevin Killer, Oglala (D-Shannon County), and Rep. Troy Heinert, Rosebud Sioux (D-Todd and Mellette counties). Said Heinert: “Native voters have a lot of problems getting to the ballot box, and this bill would create another hurdle.”
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