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Ballot-Box Breakthrough in the Badlands

Voting-rights nonprofit Four Directions has announced a giant step forward in South Dakota. At the March 7 meeting of the Tripp County Commission, its members advised Four Directions’ executive director, O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, that they would arrange for full enfranchisement, including early voting, for adjoining Todd County, a non-tribal government whose land base is contiguous with the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Henceforth, the Tripp County auditor, who handles Todd County elections on a freelance basis, will offer voting there for the same number of days and hours other South Dakotans enjoy, starting with this year’s primary.

“I was speechless, because I went to the meeting ready to argue,” said Semans. He reported some joshing from the commissioners about him turning up every year to “give them hell over early voting.”

Early voting is a convenience recently offered in South Dakota—and nationwide—to increase voter participation; under its provisions, when you happen to be in town during a defined period leading up to an election, you can register to vote and/or cast a ballot. This is handy in rural states like South Dakota, with their huge distances and difficult driving conditions during winter months.

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However, early voting has not been consistently available in South Dakota’s Native American areas. When it has been, it has increased election participation dramatically—causing some observers to speculate that early voting’s popularity is the reason why the state and some counties have sought to limit Native American access to it, and thus to the political process. In this view, denial of early voting is part and parcel of an effort in South Dakota to prevent or curtail Native voting that began in 1924, when Congress gave Native Americans citizenship, with full voting rights. South Dakota managed to keep Native people out of its polling places altogether until the 1940s. Then, during the 1970s, one of its attorney generals called the Voting Rights Act an “absurdity” and advised the secretary of state at the time to ignore it.

Now, though, Tripp County has helped ensure that its neighbors in Todd County/Rosebud have equal access to the ballot box. Four Directions legal director Greg Lembrich, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, called the Tripp County decision “great news and a tribute to [Semans’] perseverance and tenacity … The powers that be in South Dakota are getting the message that we will not surrender or settle for anything less than equality.”