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Robert Novak needs to apologize to Indian voters

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National political commentator Robert Novak is being wrongheaded even beyond his conservative partisanship. On the national level he is in hot water for "outing" a respectable U.S. intelligence professional who was required to work incognito and whose career he essentially destroyed. In that case, Novak was playing footsies with the vindictive climate at the White House, letting himself and his profession be used to wreak vengeance on the wife of a perceived political enemy, regardless of her record of service to the country. Later, Novak would cheapen the finest of journalistic ethical arguments - the privacy of sources - to protect his handler within the Administration.

Now, out of the blue, Novak resurrects a well-demolished rumor: that South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson's election to the U.S. Senate in 2002 over Republican candidate John Thune was fraudulently "stolen by stuffing ballot boxes on Indian reservations." Novak made these remarks Jan. 6 while appearing on CNN's "Crossfire." Novak had already made a similar remark on "Crossfire," Dec. 13, declaring: "The Indians, they got the phony Indian votes out there."

Returning to the subject on the Jan. 13 edition of "The Capital Gang," Novak refused to apologize and continued to stand by his remarks, though he retreated considerably in the language used and now pretends he did not say what he in fact said. He has dropped the openly-racial language, but continues to contend that, "very serious voting irregularities," took place.

Which is scurrilous nonsense. No fraud or even "serious" voting irregularities took place, and no votes were cast in the election as a result of problems with voter registration. Everyone who needs to in South Dakota knows that and many across the political spectrum, from Democrats to Republicans, including John Thune, the opponent who lost the election, responded negatively to Novak's accusation. Novak is besmirching Indian political participation, just as reservation voter registration drives are attracting Indian people to vote in elections, often deciding close contests.

What happened was this: Republican John Thune lost the 2002 senatorial election by 524 votes, a margin of victory attributed by Democratic candidate Tim Johnson and most everyone else to the Indian swing vote coming from the state's nine reservations. The superlative Indian voter turnout was due in large measure to a Democratic Party registration drive strongly supported by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Three actual incidents involving three registration workers came quickly to light. In one, a man from Rapid City farmed out voter registration to friends who worked from a phone book to fill out the required forms. In a second incident, Rebecca Red Earth-Villeda, an independent contractor to the Democratic Party is accused of handing in applications for absentee ballots that had forged signatures on them. This all happened in the registration phase and not at election time.

South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, a Republican, confirms that no illegal votes were cast as a result of the very limited voter registration problems. "There were no stuffed ballot boxes in South Dakota's 2002 election," Nelson told the Rapid City Journal. "We all know there were attempts at voter registration fraud. I am confident our county auditors and the law enforcement of this state were able to stop that and that no illegal ballots were cast."

The condemnation of Novak for resurrecting the slander was pretty universal in South Dakota. Thune's current campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, called Novak's remarks, "inappropriate [and] off the mark." Republican Governor Mike Rounds said he found Novak's remarks, "ignorant." Randy Frederick, South Dakota's GOP Chairman called Novak's assertions, "appalling" and "insane." And to repeat, according to Republican Nelson: "No illegal ballots were cast."

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To be generous, we suggest perhaps Mr. Novak hit that easy trap that propagandists big and small often stumble into, believing their own politically-exaggerated sources whose sole purpose has been media spin designed to besmirch perceived enemies. The way Novak's sources worked in this instance takes a page from Al Franken's description of the derivative journalism attack methods now regularly used by operatives of the Winged Right.

On Oct. 22, the National Review ran an article titled "Lost in Translation: Bilingual voting and the South Dakota Senate race," by Jim Boulet Jr., which assumes as reality a South Dakota "Indian reservation voter-registration scandal." Boulet, executive director of "English First," goes on to make a convoluted claim of potential would-be fraud by translators who assist non-English speaking Indians. It is nonsense to the charges bandied about, but it opens the gate.

Nov. 14, The Wall Street Journal weighs in, in its Review and Outlook section, under the heading, "The Oglala Sioux's Senator." The Journal asserts that Sen. Johnson won re-election over Republican challenger Rep. John Thune, "the Chicago way." The 2002 South Dakota senatorial race, claims, was decided in "highly suspicious, if not crooked, fashion," noting the, "suspicious circumstances under which [Thune] lost by a mere 524 votes."

Then, on Dec. 23 the National Review runs as its cover story the supposed expos? of the mythical stolen election based entirely on a Republican collection of affidavits from voters, which was already discredited as fraudulent itself. The piece was replete with cited problems that convinced none of the people involved. State Attorney General Mark Barnett, himself a Republican, denounced the National Review story by Byron York as "shoddy, irresponsible, sensationalistic and garbage." But the right wing media hoop had come full circle. A record of so-called fraud, well spun to sling out into media space. Novak clearly loaded his cannon from such sources.

Novak backs up his assertion of fraud, dismissed in unusual non-partisan consensus, by blaming even the South Dakota Republican Party for not confirming his shaky misinformation. Novak claims GOP officials declined to protest the irregularities "for political purposes." Novak backtracks (like a fox) on the "stuffed ballots" statement, but shifts to blame the South Dakota Republicans for not backing him up. That they will not do so is much to their credit. They understand that fraud is not an issue and that the Indian swing vote is a reality.

Both political parties in this case actually acted quickly to quell any misinformation put out by their own over-zealous or corrupted operatives. While the Democrats fielded and caught several fringe registration workers that were willing to fake voter registrations, on the other hand, as reported in an Indian Country Today story by David Melmer, ("Voter fraud charges in South Dakota prove fraudulent," Vol. 22 Iss. 29), "Republican attorneys fanned out across the state on Election Day Nov. 6 to gather affidavits to show voting irregularities. Now the most serious of those affidavits have been found to be fraudulent themselves. Republican State Attorney General Mark Barnett said of the 50 affidavits the Republican operatives collected, only three alleged criminal activity, and two of those "proved to be false." The Republican group had "drawn up stock affidavits with blanks for the signature and then went looking for people to sign them."

It wasn't pretty but it was business as usual. Yet both parties went on to clean up and safeguard their approaches. And it was after all a Republican Secretary of State who declared: "No illegal ballots were cast."

"Stuffed ballots" Novak still needs to be questioned and consistently on his comments about voter fraud on South Dakota Indian reservations. This kind of off-handed slap at American Indian integrity has to be challenged. If as he claims, he "did not intend any bias against Native Americans," then why take such casual approach to insulting a whole people, calling their honest attempt to vote into question?

If you ask us, Novak really needs to clarify his statements. He needs to apologize.