Native Voting Rights—Back to the Drawing Board in South Dakota?
Controversy erupted in South Dakota following the state’s announcement that voters on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation would have very restricted ballot-box access for the 2018 national elections. After Crow Creek Chairman Brandon Sazue criticized Buffalo County for offering the reservation 11 days across the primary and general elections, as compared to 94 days in other parts of the state, county commissioners told ICMN they were looking at revising the plan.
South Dakota’s rules for disbursing federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds to support voting access allow such plans to be revisited in “extraordinary circumstances,” according to Jason Williams, spokesperson for the secretary of state, or chief elections official.
Buffalo County commissioner and Crow Creek tribal member Donita Loudner said the commission, which is the county’s governing body, had not been fully consulted in crafting the plan. “I learned from the newspaper what Crow Creek’s satellite polling place would have during the 2018 elections,” Loudner said.
Not so, said Buffalo County auditor Elaine Wulff, who is the local official tasked with conducting the election by submitting HAVA funding requests, arranging for polling places, training pollworkers and the like. Wulff said she had “followed the commission’s lead” and “discussed it with the commissioners ahead of time” before requesting HAVA money for the Crow Creek polling place.
When ICMN asked Wulff whether the three county commissioners had in fact met, decided on a number of days for the Crow Creek satellite office (in addition to the main office in the county seat, Gann Valley), and conveyed that information to her for the HAVA request, she responded, “they approved what I did.”
It’s back to the drawing board, according to commission chair Lloyd Lutter, who, like Wulff, is not a tribal member: “It’s under discussion. No decision has been made. We are now waiting for a letter from the tribal chairman to tell us what they want.” Loudner confirmed that a letter was on the way.
Providing equal voting rights should be simple and straightforward for Buffalo County, said South Dakota state senator Troy Heinert, D-District 26, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “Buffalo County is one of three counties in the state that are pre-approved for HAVA reimbursements, so this should not be a problem. The money is there.”
The satellite office in Crow Creek’s capital, Fort Thompson, is a significant factor in providing equal rights, Heinert added: “We are a large rural state, and some people have limited ability to travel long distances to vote. Everyone should have an equal chance to participate in our democracy.”
Involvement in the political system is critical, Loudner agreed: “The county can’t say to our people, ‘This is what you get; take it or leave it.’ We have a voice.”
Loudner observed that this is not the first time Buffalo County officials have sidelined Native voters. In 2004, a federal court ordered the county to redistrict after an ACLU lawsuit showed that its three commission districts were grossly gerrymandered. Almost 1,500 Natives were packed into one district centered on Fort Thompson, while the county’s few hundred additional residents, Native and non-Native, were split between two other districts. This setup had long allowed whites to control the local government and its resources.
“After the lawsuit, our commission district boundaries were redrawn, and we were under federal monitoring for 10 years,” Loudner said. “Monitoring was limited, though—just on election day, and it was over in 2014—so all these behind-the-scenes problems have continued.”
Two Buffalo County commissioners and the auditor are up for re-election in 2018. Whether candidates will emerge to challenge any of them is not yet known.