South Dakota has devised an ingenious new way to curb minority voting. For decades, suppressing the Native American vote here has involved activities that might not surprise those who follow enfranchisement issues: last-minute changes to Indian-reservation polling places, asking Native voters for ID that isn’t required, confronting them in precinct parking lots and tailing them from the polls and recording their license-plate numbers. The state and jurisdictions within it have fought and lost some 20 Native voting-rights lawsuits; a major suit is still before the courts. Two South Dakota counties were subject to U.S. Department of Justice oversight until June of this year. That’s when the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying, “Today, our Nation has changed.” Yes, it has. The VRA decision provided an opening for those who are uncomfortable when minorities, the poor and other marginalized citizens vote. Since the decision, new measures to limit enfranchisement have swept the country — mostly gerrymandering and restrictions on allowable voter IDs.
South Dakota’s secretary of state and top elections official Jason Gant is a step ahead of the pack. He will ask the federal Election Assistance Commission if it’s okay to use Help America Vote Act funds to pay for early-voting polling places on three Indian reservations. Such facilities, which the state has already spent HAVA funds on for two other reservations, cost about $15,000 per election. If the new ones are approved, the money would come from the $9 million in HAVA appropriations the state has in interest-bearing accounts earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Voting-rights group Four Directions made the early-voting request on behalf of three South Dakota Sioux tribes during the July 31 meeting of the state’s Board of Elections. With the polling places, tribal members would cast ballots closer to home during the 46-day period when South Dakota allows voting ahead of Election Day. Shown above is a portion of a 50-plus-mile round trip some Sioux currently make to early-vote off their reservation–if impoverished tribal members can find transport or gas money. Other Sioux may travel 100 miles or more.
“Right now, most Indians in South Dakota get one day to vote, Election Day, when precincts are set up on reservations; meanwhile, other voters have several weeks,” said civil-rights leader OJ Semans, a Rosebud Sioux who co-directs Four Directions. “That’s not equal access.” Semans is shown below, second from right, discussing early voting with county officials.