Lawsuits threatened over voter problems

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New state voter law may be litigated

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Voter complaints about treatment on June 1 at the
primary and special election have prompted a nonprofit organization to
propose possible legal action.

A new state law that required photo identification to obtain a ballot will
be challenged, according to Bret Healy, executive director of Four
Directions Corporation, a voter advocacy group.

Healy said his organization has between 15 and 20 affidavits from people,
mostly on the state reservations that accuse poll workers of intimidation
and illegal activities.

Some of the people were not allowed to vote without photo ID even though
the state law allows for affidavits to be signed in lieu of the IDs.

Healy said there was a breakdown in the state's election procedure and his
organization plans to do something about it.

Some county authorities are conducting investigations. Fall River County
State's Attorney Lance Russell has found no incidents in Shannon County
where charges should be filed. Some voters retrieved IDs from their
vehicles, and no instances were found where registered voters were denied
the right to vote.

Fall River County oversees the election process for unincorporated Shannon
County, which encompasses the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Some voters, according to the affidavits, felt intimidated and refused to
vote. According to Fall River County records 300 affidavits were completed
on June 1 at the polling locations.

Attorney Julie Renae Weddell, a Yankton Sioux tribal member said by
affidavit that she approached the polling place in Wagner, S.D. and was
told by a precinct representative that "you better have a photo ID if you
plan on voting or you can just turn yourself around." Weddell said she
responded that she could also vote by affidavit. To which the
representative said, "I just wanted to make sure you have a photo ID."

Weddell also witnessed a precinct representative later in the day tell Edna
Weddell, an 80-year-old tribal member, that she needed an ID. A local
Episcopal pastor retrieved her ID from her apartment. Weddell said she told
the representative that the elder could have signed an affidavit. The
representative responded, "you just have to find your ID," according to
Weddell's affidavit.

What may be a punishable violation occurred in the town of White River,
just on the north edge of the Rosebud Reservation. Precinct workers opened
the ballot box after the polls had closed.

State law requires the ballot box be turned over to the counting committee
in the case of non-machine counted ballots, but the law is not clear on
ballots counted by machine. Mellette County, where White River is located
has machine counted ballots. Secretary of State Chris Nelson said he wasn't
sure if a violation occurred.

In certain cases it constitutes a felony. Precinct representatives are
required to validate the poll logs with the number of ballots cast, but do
not need to open a ballot box to complete that task.

State Sen. John Koskan from District 26 acted as a poll watcher for the
Republican Party at White River. He acknowledged the ballot box was opened,
that the poll officials matched the number of ballots to the ledger and
returned the ballots to the box.

Koskan said that the incident was innocent and that it came as the result
of confusion.

The law is not absolutely clear. It states that as soon as the polls are
closed the precinct superintendent is to audit the ballot count, then
immediately deliver the ballot boxes and other materials to the counting
board, if one is appointed. It does not require the audit take place with
an open ballot box.

Instructions to the precinct representatives included the new Photo ID law
and also stated that an affidavit was to be used in lieu of the ID. But
confusion over the new law has been reported as frequent.

Four Directions is collecting more affidavits from across the state that
relate to the new laws to uncover any more possible violations, Healy said.

Efforts to register and encourage American Indian voters to take part in
the election process have been successful in some of the counties that have
in the past shown very low voter turnout. Shannon and Todd counties, on the
Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations have each shown remarkable increases in
voter turnout. Shannon County increased by 312 percent between the 2002 and
2004 elections; Todd county 249 percent between 2002 and 2004.

Other counties, Buffalo, on the Crow Creek Reservation, and counties on the
Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations increased by anywhere from
136 percent to 176 percent.

In the June 1 special election Democrat Stephanie Herseth won by a 51 to 49
percent margin. She is now filling the vacated seat held by Congressman
Bill Janklow, who resigned in January.

The votes from Indian country have been credited with putting Herseth over
the top. She defeated Republican Larry Diedrich, who was supported by the
national Republican Party and the Bush administration.

Rep. Tom Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Central
Committee said, "If you take out the Indian reservations, we would have
won."