Rosebud Sioux civil rights leader Oliver J. Semans, of voting-rights group Four Directions, marked the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by filing a voting-rights complaint with U.S. Department of Justice.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Semans asked for help on behalf of the Oglala, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek Sioux tribes. The three tribes want early-voting/registration offices in the portions of their reservations that overlap South Dakota’s Jackson, Dewey and Buffalo counties, respectively.
However, the South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant claims that he must receive permission from the federal Election Assistance Commission to expend Help America Vote Act funds on the new offices. This is despite court testimony from both Gant and his predecessor stating that they can make such choices independently under the state’s HAVA plan. South Dakota has already spent HAVA money on early-voting stations in other reservation counties.
Gant announced his intention to consult the feds during a July 31 meeting of the state’s Board of Elections and reiterated it in a statement August 2.
There’s a hitch: The EAC, according to its spokesperson Bryan Whitener, has no commissioners, and these officials are the only ones who may make such determinations.
Semans called the EAC “a zombie agency.” He also called Secretary Gant’s position “steeped in intent to discriminate.”
"That is absolutely absurd and offensive," Gant has just told the Rapid City Journal.
Gant may have known the EAC was moribund when he told the state elections board that he had to consult the agency. He’s an officer of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which voted in 2011 to support disbanding the EAC. When press reports, including one in Indian Country Today Media Network, revealed this, he challenged a member of the elections board. Gant responded, “The EAC can either say yes, no, or they may issue no response…Once the EAC review is completed, then additional steps can be acted upon.”
The tribes want the offices because each has a major community that’s between 50 and 100 miles away from the tiny, mostly non-Native, off-reservation county seats where registration and early voting, also called in-person absentee voting, are currently offered. Without on-reservation offices, popular early voting is essentially out of reach for isolated, impoverished tribal members, who may not have transport or gas money to make the trip.
The counties are ready to provide early voting if HAVA can pay for them—about $15,000 per election from South Dakota’s $9 million interest-bearing HAVA account, said Semans. To determine this willingness, he spent months traveling the state to talk to county officials with Four Directions co-director Barb Semans and consultant Bret Healy. On August 6, the Buffalo County Commission approved a full satellite voting office in Crow Creek’s tribal capital, Fort Thompson, for the 2014 general election, assuming HAVA funding is made available.
Healy asked whether Gant’s stance meant potential changes in South Dakota’s HAVA status. The federal appropriation is tied to compliance with the Voting Rights Act. “Is South Dakota still in compliance?,” Healy asked. “If it isn’t, what does this mean for the federal funds it is holding?”
President Lyndon Johnson apparently foresaw these controversies and more. When he signed the VRA into law on August 6, 1965, he said, “There will be many actions and many difficulties before the rights woven into law are also woven into the fabric of our Nation. But the struggle for equality must now move toward a different battlefield.”
This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.