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American Indian Voter Rights Debate Heats Up

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The complaints keep coming in from Indian country over
problems with the June 1 special and primary elections in South Dakota.

Affidavits continue to stack up mostly complaining about the new state law
that requires a photo ID in order to obtain a ballot. Some people assert
that the new law created very few problems and that it worked fine.

Chris Nelson said some things had to be worked out but by the Nov. 2
election and that the process would go more smoothly.

Bret Healy, executive director of the non-profit Get Out the Vote
organization said that lawsuits would be filed in all three federal
districts in South Dakota.

"For the legislature to do what they did in 2003 was unconscionable to make
it more difficult for Native Americans to vote. The practical effect of the
law was vivid on June 1," Healy said.

The voter photo ID requirement was passed by the state legislature in 2003.
An argument used by opponents of the new law claim that because the
American Indian vote was so instrumental in re-electing Democrat Tim
Johnson, the Republican-led legislature passed the new rules.

Healy claims the state was not vigilant in correcting early problems on
election day as was claimed by Secretary of State Chris Nelson. Nelson said
on June 2 that most of the problems occurred early in the day and were
taken care of.

An affidavit that was signed by Jesse Taken Alive, former chairman and
present member of the tribal council of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,
stated that he called the secretary's office at 5:30 p.m. to relay a
complaint about photo ID problems.

Indian Country Today also obtained a copy of a note signed by Dorothy
Schuh, Corson County auditor that stated "Some voters are reporting that ID
is not required. Please inform the voters that ID is in fact required."
That comment came under the line on a sheet handed to the poll workers that
stated in lieu of photo ID an affidavit could be completed.

What one poll watcher saw was more in the line of chaos at the polls,
little problems with the photo ID, but he did witness intimidation. "People
were coming in and out of the building, and talking to people who were
voting, in the voting booth," said Bruce Whalen.

Whalen was a Republican poll watcher.

"I saw a person representing Four Directions threaten a poll supervisor. I
thought that was unprofessional," he said.

Healy said he couldn't speak to the actions of the volunteer poll watcher.

Whalen said he witnessed people challenging the photo ID law, but didn't
see anyone turned away. He saw a person who left the building to retrieve
his photo ID from the car. A Four Directions person complained that that
person was denied the right to vote - which was not the case, Whalen said.

Whalen said Republicans and the Four Directions had poll watchers at
Precincts one, two, and three in Pine Ridge. All three precincts use the
Billy Mills Hall in Pine Ridge as a polling location. The Democratic Party
did not have poll watchers at Pine Ridge.

Whalen also said there are three doors used to leave or enter the building
and all were open with people coming and going the entire day.

"It was more of a social event, it didn't appear to be a purposeful vote,"
Whalen said. He added that from what he saw everyone was accommodated.

Healy said voting is a public event and people can come and go unless they
are disruptive.

Most people didn't know which precinct table to approach so one precinct
table was subjected to a lengthy line from where people were directed to
their proper precinct.

"I didn't see a single person turned away for not having a photo ID,"
Whalen said. "I thought the voting went pretty smooth."

He added that the poll watcher for the Four Directions organization came to
the poll without a photo ID to challenge the poll officials and test the
system.

Healy said the Four Directions Poll watcher was a volunteer, and that the
organization had many people around that not only were poll watchers, but
were also drivers, taking people to and from the polls.

"Four Directions is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization and we follow
the rules," Healy said.

Whalen said there were some "hiccups" in the process, but on the whole the
voting process went as smoothly as possible. Whalen's arguments counter
some of the accusations people, who signed affidavits, and claimed there
were problems with the new photo ID law.

Complaints came from across the state, many from reservations and some from
Rapid City, where there is a large American Indian population.

"We have demonstrated evidence of many people turned away at the polls who
had no photo ID. The big picture is that Native American voters were turned
away at the polls. They [Republicans and critics] had better come up with a
better argument then that to keep voters from voting," Healy said.

Danielle Black Fox, Standing Rock tribal member, said she witnessed several
voters at a precinct in McLaughlin, S.D. turned away for not having photo
ID, one she said did not return. Her affidavit stated that poll official
Dorothy Weist, Butte Precinct, required a photo ID and did not allow
affidavits.

Healy said he had an objection against the media and how it has treated
these incidents, but most particularly he has a complaint with the
Secretary of State's office and how it showed a "troubling lack of
seriousness.

He said if the tables were turned and there were 20 or fewer incidents of
non-Indians not allowed to vote the FBI and media would be all over the
incidents, Healy said.

Healy complained that Sec. Nelson, was not at his office the morning of the
election. Healy said Nelson told the media that all incidents were taken
care of in the morning, but one complaint came in just 90 minutes before
the polls closed and wasn't dealt with.

"Isn't it the responsibility of the chief election officer of the state to
be at his duty station, especially with this new election law in effect? He
ought to be in the office," Healy said.

Nelson was not available for comment before deadline.

The 2002 election cycle also produced many accusations of voter fraud on
reservations, stemming from mostly Republican sources. Indian people in
South Dakota overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

Both parties were engaged with Get Out the Vote campaigns for the June 1
special election. Democrat Stephanie Herseth defeated Republican Larry
Diedrich and is now seated in the U.S. House.

A poll count suggests that Indian country brought enough votes to the polls
to put Herseth in office.

"The only thing we did wrong, according to our opponents, is to get voters
out. Their complaint is that too many voters came out to not vote for their
candidates," Healy said.