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Surprise 11th-Hour Native-Vote Agreements

Two more South Dakota counties have agreed to provide Indian-reservation polling places during the state’s pre-election early-voting period.

This week, two more South Dakota counties have agreed to provide Indian-reservation polling places during the state’s pre-election early-voting period. Jackson County will open an office in Wanblee, on the part of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation it overlaps, and Dewey County will re-open the office it had in past elections in Eagle Butte, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

As a result, voters in those areas will be able to cast in-person absentee ballots during the last 11 days of South Dakota’s 46-day window for doing so. The state’s two other reservation satellite offices are in Pine Ridge village and in Mission, on the Rosebud reservation.

Dewey County had seemed poised not to open an office in 2014. “It required some pushing,” said Cheyenne River tribal member and voting-rights advocate Julie Garreau, who described negotiating issues with the state and county, including election-worker training and access to the voter database. “But it worked out.”

Importantly, both offices will open by October 20, South Dakotans’ last day to register for the 2014 election, said attorney Matthew Rappold, of Mission, South Dakota: “This is definitely on the radar of the get-out-the-vote folks.”

Rappold’s clients, including Ogala Nation Vice President Tom Poor Bear and additional Wanblee residents, had sued for their office under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The matter was settled through mediation before Magistrate Judge Veronica Duffy, who published a notice on October 15 saying that “the parties succeeding in resolving the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.” The agreement applies to this year’s office.

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“The rest of the suit, for a permanent injunction for a satellite office during future elections, is ongoing,” said Rappold. “We will ensure the county meets its responsibility to provide the polling place.” He was confident his clients would prevail. “We have a strong case, and they don’t.”

The county’s lawyer, Sara Frankenstein, of Rapid City, participated in the mediation; at press time, she had not responded to requests for a comment.

The increased voting access is a breakthrough for Wanblee residents. In sworn depositions, the plaintiffs described the cost and difficulty of the long trip to the county seat where they used to cast early ballots. They recounted hostility—waiting at the courthouse or in restaurants as whites were served first, being cursed on the streets, being followed in stores, and more. “Kadoka feels like a different country to me,” said plaintiff Cheryl Bettlyoun.

Is voting by mail an option? Plaintiff Don Doyle was dubious, saying he did not believe mail-in ballots would necessarily be counted.

Jackson County election official Vicki Wilson, who has cited cost and election-safety issues as barriers to manning a Wanblee office, refused to comment on the settlement.

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A fifth South Dakota jurisdiction, Buffalo County, has declined to open an office in Fort Thompson, on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. Elections official Elaine Wulff said that costs for the polling place were reimbursable under the state’s Help America Vote Act plan but would contribute to using up the county’s HAVA allocation.

“The Americans who need help voting are among the 1,400 mostly Native residents of Fort Thompson, not the 14 white people in county seat Gann Valley, who can walk across the street to vote,” said Greg Lembrich, legal director of Native-led voting-rights group Four Directions.

Four Directions, which has fought for Native voting access in several states, isn’t giving up, said Lembrich: “We continue to pursue an office in Fort Thompson.”

Said Julie Garreau of the new reservation satellite offices, “It’s all good.”