RAPID CITY, S.D. - As an unprecedented turnout of Indian voters bids fair to decide control of the U.S. Senate, registration and absentee balloting on South Dakota reservations are drawing intense, and possibly inflated, national scrutiny.
Some national press outlets are portraying problems with Indian absentee voting applications as the biggest electoral scandal since Florida. Federal and state officials have opened investigations in several counties. But some election officials say the number of apparently irregular filings is a normal consequence of a huge volume of new registrations, compounded by a small number of over-zealous campaign workers.
The issue erupted in October following the discovery in Dewey County of four apparently improper absentee ballot applications. The state's Republican Attorney General, Mark Barnett, said at a press conference that an investigation has begun.
According to Dewey County Auditor Adele Enright, who first reported the questionable applications, two were subsequently found to be legitimate. Enright said the other two were not signed by the applicant.
"We haven't found all that many, the four right off the bat," she said. "There may be several more, maybe a dozen. Some came back unclaimed at the post office. A lady called me and said the person whose name was on the application did not live at her address. Our voters are not attempting to defraud; this is not on the part of the voters. This is the work of over-zealous workers."
There is no comment from the Attorney General's office.
This picture is a far cry from initial claims that hundreds if not thousands of registration cards and absentee ballot applications have been forged. But the charges are highly embarrassing for the state Democratic Party and U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, locked in an apparent dead heat with Republican challenger John Thune.
The state party and Johnson's re-election campaign headquarters are both in damage control mode, claiming that neither the senator nor the party is implicated in the investigations.
Attorney General Barnett said earlier that legal action might be possible if large numbers of invalid ballots were cast and the race was very close. He said his main objective was to stop any possible law breaking in voter registration.
The Democrats launched a massive voter registration drive on the state's nine reservations to get Indian country to turn out in large numbers on Nov. 5. Many tribes also have tribal elections scheduled for the same day; a high voter turnout is predicted.
Many of the county auditors near or on the reservations have been inundated with voter registration cards and absentee ballot applications.
Dewey County is located on the Cheyenne River Reservation and is predominantly Democratic; of 4,175 registered voters, only 900 are Republican, Enright said.
Most of the registration cards that were filled out in much the same handwriting were traced to Becky Red Earth-Valleda, who also goes by her Dakota name Maka Duta. She worked for the Democrats to register voters, but was fired after the apparently improper registrations and applications were found.
Enright said that in Ziebach County, also on the Cheyenne River Reservation, quite a few applications had the same hand writing as Red Earth-Valleda's. The Ziebach County Auditor would not respond to questions but said the state Attorney General's office sent an email saying that all media questions were to go through that office.
Enright said that one questionable application for an absentee ballot came from Denise Red Horse, who was killed in a car accident on Sept 3. An application was also received in Ziebach County; both were dated Sept. 21, Enright said. She added that she doubted Red Horse would have signed both applications. One was alleged to be her signature.
The Fall River County Auditor's office found 100 registration cards that were suspect. Fall River handles Shannon County, which is totally on the Pine Ridge Reservation and has no county seat.
Many of the registration cards were compared to other registrations, and some signatures and birth dates were found to be wrong. The voter total list in Fall River County jumped by more than 1,000 people since June.
The registration cards were turned over to the FBI and the state's Attorney General's office.
In Pennington County, the state's second largest county, 238 registration cards were turned over the county sheriff. Julie Pearson, county auditor, said those registration cards were turned in by an organization called Native American Education and Registration Project. Pearson said the project is cooperating with her office and that two of its employees were responsible for the invalid cards.
The Democratic Party pledged to register more than 10,000 American Indians this year. In 1996, the year Sen. Tim Johnson defeated Larry Pressler for the Senate seat, the American Indian vote was given the credit for putting Johnson over the top in a close race. The Democratic Party has staff on each reservation.
A report in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on Oct. 15 said that Thune would not rule out a challenge to the election if widespread voter fraud was found, should he lose. The Thune campaign denies that he said he would challenge the election.
"Thune wants to get to the bottom of this and have an honest election. There is no plan to contest the election and he hopes it would not happen," said Christine Iverson, spokesperson for the Thune campaign.
"The discussion we need now is what are the problems, who is responsible, and fix it."
Iverson added that since the Red Earth-Valleda was employed by the Democratic Party it is the party that should take responsibility.
"I think from what evidence I've seen this is very large. I've seen proof of wrongdoing," said Joel Rosenthal, head of the Republican Party in South Dakota. "The Democrats have said that the Native American population is a large group they have targeted. If they believe those are their voters and do it in a legal way it is appropriate."
He added that he has seen fraudulent registration cards and absentee ballot requests. He also said that the Democratic Party has admitted wrongdoing, mostly by way of firing Red Earth-Valleda, who was acting as their employee.
"(The Democrats) admitted she was their employee and have tried to minimalize this," he said.
The Democrats said that when the issue came to their attention, the person was immediately fired.
"For (the Republicans) to say we should take responsibility is ludicrous," Feinberg said. "We have done more campaign training for staff than has ever been seen in any campaign. We told the people what was acceptable and not. We have done everything in our power to have the best program. Then one independent contractor broke the rules and she was terminated immediately. "There are a number of groups out there who are trying to register and get people into the process, we assume they are going about this in a proper way. My party is not the only game in town."
Eight counties that are near or on the reservations are targeted for investigations to uncover improper voter registration and absentee ballot applications.
Pearson said that in the past registration cards that come from registration drives have always given her office and other auditors problems. When people come to the auditor's office and register, the clerks can detect any problems like forgotten birth dates and illegible information.