Every election, South Dakota voters have 46 days when they can vote early, which makes it easier for people to take part in our democracy. But the rules appear to be different for American Indian voters living on reservations in the state–at least according to recent actions by the South Dakota’s Secretary of State, who is stonewalling a request for early voting sites in three American Indian communities. Officials in Shannon County, which is home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and has a population that is 92 percent American Indian, planned to offer only six days of early voting. For the other 40 days, voters would have to travel up to three hours for the nearest early voting location. This created a significant hurdle for voters for whom arranging and paying for transportation would be no small feat–you see, Shannon County is one of the poorest areas in the country where over half of the residents live below the poverty line. After county residents sued over this clear disparity in voting opportunities, Secretary of State Jason Gant relented. Until 2019, South Dakota will use federal Help America Vote Act funds – designed, as you might imagine, to help Americans vote – to set up early voting locations within Shannon County for the full early voting period.
Fast forward to 2013–different counties, same problem. With the help of voting rights group Four Directions, three tribes (the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe) asked for registration and early voting sites near where members actually live so that some voters would not have to drive upwards of 80 miles round-trip just to be able to cast a ballot.
But when the counties (Dewey, Buffalo and Jackson) requested help from the state to offset the cost, Secretary of State Gant essentially refused to release the money. Never mind that the money would come from very pool of funds Gant just agreed to use in Shannon County–the one intended to help Americans vote. These counties, like Shannon County, are predominantly American Indian. In addition, 30-40% of residents also live below the poverty line, as compared to 14% statewide.