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Republican voter regulations may target American Indians

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PIERRE, S.D. - The state legislature is pushing the hot button issue of voter registration and absentee ballots.

Republican members of the House submitted a bill that would require a picture ID to vote, register and acquire an absentee ballot. Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union oppose the measure.

State Democrats have accused the Republicans of trying to inhibit American Indian voting because Indian country tends to favor Democratic candidates. U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson won re-election by a narrow margin in the November 2002 election with an overwhelming late vote from the Pine Ridge reservation.

Allegations of voter fraud flew freely before the elections. But so far only one person in Rapid City has been sentenced. Another has been charged, but has yet to have a court hearing.

The Voter ID bill, HB 1176 was approved in committee eight to four on straight party lines. It would require people to present a photo ID at the polls. That could be a driver's license, tribal ID card, passport, college ID or federal ID.

It would also require people to present the photo ID when applying for absentee ballots.

Jennifer Ring of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas opposed the bill on the grounds that it tends to discriminate against American Indians. Those people wanting to vote absentee would have to go to the county auditor's office, send in photocopies of their ID or submit notarized affidavits requesting the ballots.

Ring said any one of those options would place a burden on people living on the reservations, make voting more difficult and lowering participation from Indian country. Rep. Matt McCaulley, R-Sioux Falls, introduced the bill and said he wanted to make sure that nobody was allowed to represent another person and vote at the polls. He said there was state interest in providing a legitimate election process.

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After the past election neither the Secretary of State nor the state Attorney General found that fraud existed during the voting process. Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine said that there were some discrepancies, but no more than usual.

Payment for registration cards

A bill to outlaw the payment to people for each voter they registered was passed in committee on the eight to four party line. Republican supporters said it would take the perception of fraud out of the process.

What was most objectionable to some lawmakers was the fact that the bill included up to a two year prison term for those who pay for the registration cards and up to a year in prison for those who collect the money for the cards.

Another bill that would affect the voting booth would have required any poll watchers to be South Dakota residents. Republican lawmakers said that they were told of some Democratic poll watchers from Nebraska who intimidated poll officials in at least one location on a reservation.

Democrats said the federal 1965 Voter Rights Act was made possibleby out of region and out of state poll watchers in the 1960s. The state bill failed on a unanimous vote in committee.

Any bill that affects changes in voter rights will have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department. Because of the state's past record of voter discrimination and high population of American Indians, the Justice Department must preview all such bills.