An investigative piece in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader has people talking in South Dakota. Commentary has ranged from snide to furious about the South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance (SDPAA) and its backing of opponents to Native voting access. The taxpayer-funded insurance pool for governing entities around the state has been the deep pockets for Jackson County’s fight against a Native lawsuit demanding full-service satellite voting for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In court documents for Poor Bear v. The County of Jackson, the county has said both that it can’t afford the polling place for the portion of Pine Ridge it overlaps and that it knows of federal money for the office. In refusing Jackson County’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the presiding judge scolded the county for apparently knowing “the funding justification was not true.”
Argus Leader’s Jonathan Ellis triggered the current fracas on August 15, when he reported that Dennis Olson, board chairman of the insurance alliance, had called the Native lawsuit for the satellite office “frivolous” and something “you just have to put up with.” When Ellis informed Olson that federal money was available for such a polling place, Olson pivoted and speculated that this might cause the Alliance to pressure the county to settle.
The next day, OJ Semans, co-director of voting-rights group Four Directions, shot back. He wrote to Olson, calling SDPAA’s actions “frivolous” and accusing it of wasting taxpayer dollars in an effort “to keep us impoverished and disenfranchised.”
Also on August 16, Dakota Free Press scoffed, “Jackson County can’t bear to stick taxpayer[s] with the cost of helping Indians vote, but they are happy to stick taxpayers with the lawyer bill for defending their racism.”
Like Jackson County, Minnehaha County is an SDPAA member and contributes to its shared-risk insurance fund. Minnehaha Commissioner Jeff Barth compared SDPAA to an auto-insurance company that persists in covering a habitually drunk driver. “Why would we spend one or two million dollars to defend Jackson County against spending nothing? Clearly, Jackson County doesn’t want Native Americans to vote,” Barth told ICTMN.
Fully litigated voting-rights cases have cost millions, confirmed Bret Healy, a Four Directions consultant. “SDPAA is on track to spend as much as two million dollars to fight Poor Bear,” he said.
Jackson County appears to be forging ahead with its legal battle, despite a Native settlement offer. SDPAA officers and the county’s attorney, Sara Frankenstein, did not reply to ICTMN’s request for a comment on a possible settlement.
The county’s legal prospects appear slim. The Justice Department has weighed in with a Statement of Interest for the Native side in Poor Bear. Since 2013, one South Dakota county and three in Montana have agreed to provide satellite voting in similar lawsuits.
Meanwhile, South Dakota Secretary of State and top elections official Shantel Krebs is planning meetings with counties and tribes to discuss setting up and staffing reservation satellite offices. “Jackson County is on an island,” said Semans. “We’ll see how long it takes them to figure it out.”