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Hearing Conducted on New Voting Law

PIERRE, S.D. - The first hearing on a new voter law that requires photo ID,
and brought about many complaints, aired both sides of the issue. The
American Indian community is still not satisfied and wants the law
repealed.

Numerous complaints were filed that claimed inconsistent implementation of
the new law at the polls. The new law requires each voter to present the ID
in order to obtain a ballot. In lieu of the ID an affidavit can be filled
out, but the complainants argue that option was not always explained to
potential voters.

"There is a tradition in this state of protecting the franchise of every
individual," said Rep. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City and chairman of the
State/Tribal Relations Committee that held the hearing.

"I had a call that expressed a fear that this bill was to disenfranchise
Native Americans. I had no sense at any time that this bill was directed
against the Indian community, or for or against any party."

Other legislators on the committee also said they never had the impression
that the bill was directed at the American Indian vote. But the state
position is simple: no voter should have their vote taken away from them
because another person used their name to get access to a ballot. It was,
however, pointed out that at no time in the state's history has anyone ever
been prosecuted for voter fraud at the polls.

"South Dakota is not the only state that requires a photo ID, there are 11
states that require a photo ID and others have variations. This law is not
retrogressive to Native Americans," said Chris Nelson, Secretary of State.
Nelson said also that this bill did not come from his office to the
legislature.

Nelson also pointed out that before any voting law goes into effect in Todd
or Shannon Counties, the counties encompassing the Rosebud and Pine Ridge
Reservations, the Department of Justice must pre-clear them. Nelson said
the photo ID law passed in 2003 was determined to not be retrogressive to
the American Indian population.

"We disagree," said Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil
Liberty Union of the Dakotas. "Not all Tribal members have a driver's
license, some have no tribal ID. To send copies of an ID or use a Notary or
to go to the Auditor's office - there may not be a Notary nearby and they
may have to pay and there is not always a copy machine nor the guarantee of
access.

"This bill is retrogressive on numerous levels," Ring said.

She also said the meaning of pre-clearance by the Department of Justice
does not mean it isn't retrogressive and doesn't mean it can't be
challenged in court.

Many affidavits that complained about the way the photo ID and affidavit
process was handled from the June 1 primary and special election have
surfaced, some have been filed in court and tribal leaders and advocates
have asked for the repeal of the law.

Tom Shortbull, president of the Oglala Lakota College and newly appointed
advisor to the Federal Election Assistance Commission, said the affidavit
option was lost in the shuffle.

"I am very adamant that the law be repealed. What was broke that required
the legislation?

"Native Americans are being punished for the outcome of the 2002 election,"
he said.

In that election Sen. Tim Johnson defeated John Thune by 528 votes and it
was a banner year for American Indian voter registration and turnout. The
votes from the reservations were considered crucial to Johnson's victory.
What is perceived in the American Indian Community is that the new photo ID
was taken into consideration in 2003, and most of the community is
convinced that it was a retaliatory measure.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people on the Rosebud Reservation feel that
this law was put in to punish them for 2002," said Oliver Semans, member of
the Four Directions Committee, a non-profit voter registration
organization.

Adelstein agreed that perception can become reality.

Another and very important point from the American Indian community is
dignity and treatment of elders. Semans pointed out that to ask an elderly
to pull out an ID card is culturally incorrect and adds to the
disenfranchisement of the elders.

History taken into consideration creates a negative attitude by American
Indians because of the perception that they are singled out with a labeling
mechanism, many people said.

Shortbull said South Dakota is a friendly and welcoming state and that a
photo ID is not required. "The polling place should be a welcoming
environment, but it is not made friendly with the photo ID."

He told the committee that during WWI American Indians fought in greater
numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, yet were not considered
citizens and couldn't vote at the time.

"We have earned the right," Shortbull said. "We fought for the right to
have a welcoming environment to vote."

Nelson pointed out that the voter turnout increased despite the photo ID
requirement. He said the turnout was 56.7 percent of the eligible voters.
The June 1 primary had a special election to fill the seat left vacant by
the resignation of former Governor and Congressman, Bill Janklow.

The voter turnout in precincts with high American Indian populations
increased substantially also. Nelson said that the percentage of people
across the state needing affidavits was 1.97 percent; on reservation
precincts the percentage was higher. This he said showed that the processed
worked. He added that problems found early on election day were solved.

"Any contention that a Native American was not able to sign an affidavit
and vote is wrong," Nelson said. "We know some voters were not offered an
affidavit, but it is a fact that it happened in other parts of the state,
not just for Native Americans."

Training and education the first time out for the new law may have been
inadequate in some cases, Nelson and others agreed. So for the November
election some changes may be in order.

The South Dakota Election Commission will take up the issue later. No date
has been set. There is not enough time to change the law before the
November election, so the state will live with the photo ID requirement
until the next session of the legislature in January.