It happens every frickin’ election. Sometimes it gets picked up by a local news outlet or two; mostly, it goes completely unnoticed, particularly by national media.
But this year, less than a week before the voter register deadline, and Republican Party in South Dakota is engaging in an overt attempt to suppress the Native American vote.
Why? Because it’s the only way they can win in South Dakota. Because they really, really want to oust every single Democrat. Because they’ll cheat to win. Because they can.
And it’s working.
So it’s up to us to stop it.
NOTE: If you want to skip the details and go straight to the action, scroll to the bottom of the diary for more info.
UPDATE: For a clear and concise historical perspective on efforts to suppress or deny the Native vote, see Ojibwa’s new diary, “Diluting the American Indian Vote.”
The Republicans have hit upon an ingenious mechanism – one that cuts right to the very heart of our Native cultures. Which would give them a two-fer: suppression of Indian votes, coupled with yet another dose of cultural destruction.
They want to stop the feeds.
Attorney General Marty Jackley and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson on Thursday affirmed an earlier opinion that political campaigns can’t offer incentives, including food, to encourage people to vote.
But their opinion, which was sent to the state Republican and Democratic parties, did not specifically say whether early-vote “feeds” held by the Democratic Party on three reservations this week violated the law.
The opinion from Jackley and Johnson came hours after the state Republican Party asked them to investigate whether Democrats were breaking state and federal law by hosting the feeds. One rally took place Tuesday at Pine Ridge, and two others were planned for Thursday on the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations.
Now, first of all, there’s no requirement that anyone vote, much less than anyone vote for a particular party or person. Second, I guarantee you that many of the people eating at these events 1) already are registered and would vote anyway, or 2) are too young to vote in the first place. But when either registering or casting a vote is going to be an all-day process, folks need to bring their families along – and those families need to eat.
And as usual with the GOP, there’s enough hypocrisy floating around to choke a whole stable full of horses:
Democratic officials also pointed out that Republicans have held events in the past that included food. They singled out Sen. John Thune’s pancake feeds during his 2004 campaign against former Sen. Tom Daschle. And they highlighted a Sept. 22 rally in Pennington County hosted by GOP gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard and congressional candidate Kristi Noem. The South Dakota Republican Party hosted the event, and it included hot dogs, chips and beverages.
In a statement, Erin McCarrick, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said Republican calls for an investigation were “false and hypocritical allegations designed to suppress voting in Indian Country.”
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
In South Dakota, county clerks’ offices and polling locations are both spread far and wide. You can drive hundreds of miles before you get to one. And residents of the Indian reservations are especially isolated, both geographically and economically: No matter how much they want to vote, the fact remains that many folks have no transportation, and/or no money to get to the nearest voter registration/polling location.
Enter the South Dakota Democratic Party. Working with tribal leaders to observe cultural standards, the Democrats and the various tribal councils have set up what are locally known as “feeds,” transporting people in large groups to and from the relevant registration/voting locations, and ensuring that they don;t go hungry during the all-day process.
To a lot of non-Natives “feed” sounds pejorative; they associate it with livestock. For our tribes, it’s a transliteration that doesn’t remotely capture the essence of the practice. In places like South Dakota, it’s a noun: A “feed” is a gathering of people, for whatever ultimate purpose, that is accompanied by traditional Indian hospitality, making sure than no one goes hungry. Here in northern N.M., it’s generally used as a verb, as in “they’re going to feed in the village house,” but it refers to the same thing: the practice of ensuring a hot meal for everyone who attends a particular function, whether a family, ceremonial, cultural, or other gathering. Whenever tribal members are expected to come together, whether it’s only members of an immediate family or it includes non-tribal invitees, Native traditions require this demonstration of hospitality. It’s something that, in my experience, cuts across all tribal lines. And everyone participates: Someone brings one dish; someone else brings another; those who don’t bring food may bring dishes, utensils, cooking paraphernalia, or simply particular skills. But everyone contributes in some way. It’s what you do.
Think potluck dinners, church socials, family reunions, etc.
And the South Dakota Republican Party wants to force us to cancel these traditional events. Why? Because they’re accusing our brothers and sisters of the S.D. tribes of buying and selling votes.
That’s right. By offering a hot meal to folks who need to travel great distances to register and/or vote (and no one accompanies each individual to ensure they register dem-only or vote Dem-only, obviously; this is simply GOTV in its purest, most small-d-democratic form), our tribal councils and illegally coordinating with the South Dakota Democratic Party to buy and sell votes.
Because, of course, no poor, benighted Indian would be capable of deciding for him- or herself who to vote for – and, of course, we’re all so gullible and corruptible that a little potluck-style lunch is enough to buy us off.
It’s absurdly insulting – so much so that it would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
SUPPRESSING THE RED VOTE
Now, this is hardly the first time that the Rove-era Republican Party has mounted a coordinated campaign to suppress the Native vote. Through their minions in the New Mexico GOP, with some help from outsiders courtesy of Karl Rove, they made a concerted to suppress the Indian vote in 2004.
It happened in South Dakota that year, too:
In South Dakota’s June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting after they were challenged to provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
PFAW also found:
In South Dakota, the state attorney general announced a voter fraud initiative in coordination with the Justice Department, which had just announced a “Voting Integrity Initiative.” In this case, that involved working with the FBI to send state and federal agents to question almost 2,000 newly registered Native American voters. No probe was announced to investigate new registrants in counties without significant Native American populations, despite the fact that those counties contained most of the new registrations in the state. 16
As the election approached, specific allegations of voter registration fraud led to the filing of criminal charges against a Native American woman registering voters on reservations for the Democratic Party.17 It was also the topic of a Republican direct mail8 piece. Democrats charged the piece was inaccurate and the GOP later apologized for its use of a newspaper headline that did not relate to the subject.18 Eventually, the GOP attorney general found some of the affidavits alleging the fraud to be false themselves, and described the search for wrongdoing to have been “fueled by vapor and fumes.”19 Charges against the woman were dropped in 2004.20
It happened there in 2002, as well:
The DOJ initiative indeed appears to be focused mostly on investigating allegations of fraud. In South Dakota, for example, the FBI is currently targeting Native American reservations in a high-profile investigation of alleged voter registration fraud, with the likely impact that many lawful voters will be intimidated as well.
So what has the state GOP in such a perpetual racist tizzy? This:
During the 2002 election, Democratic Senator Tim Johnson won his seat by only 524 votes. He had strong Native American support. Republicans weren’t happy about that. “In South Dakota, the common tactic is to allege voter fraud,” particularly when the Democrats win, says Bryan Sells, staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Usually it’s called ‘Indian voter fraud.’ In fact, I can’t recall a case of someone alleging ‘non-Indian voter fraud.’ The idea is, whether true or not, you create the sense” that Native American voters are not to be trusted.
After investigating fifty charges of fraud following that 2002 election, State Attorney General Mark Barnett, a Republican, said, “There was no widespread fraud and the election results are valid. No one stole the election.”
Nonetheless, Republicans introduced legislation that Sells characterizes as “voter suppression.” The legislation requires South Dakotans to show a picture ID in order to vote or else write up an affidavit. And, if they vote by absentee ballot, they need to get it notarized. The legislation, he says, will make it “harder to vote at the polls, harder to register, and harder to vote by absentee ballot,” especially for people on reservations. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a reservation, but there aren’t a lot of notaries around.”
Among Native Americans in South Dakota, there is a widespread belief that the legislation is aimed at them. “They decided, we got to do something to slow down the Indian vote,” says Alfred Bone Shirt, a plaintiff in one of the five recent voting rights lawsuits the ACLU has filed in the state. “The bottom line of it all is racism.”
Great. Back to the 19th Century with the racist steroetypes: shifty, untrustworthy, corruptible. And, of course, the state apparatchiks were only too happy to oblige the GOP:
Jesse Clausen, who has been active in many voter registration drives, puts it another way. “In the summer of 2003, the South Dakota State Senate passed new laws to keep Native American people from voting,” Clausen says. “Indian people living in poverty might have higher priority on other things than spending $8 to get their driver’s license.” Clausen points out that many people on the reservations don’t have cars.
During a special election held on June 1, the effect of the new law on the Native American vote started to show. “People would go in and say, ‘Well, I don’t have an ID,’ and [poll workers] would let it be known that if they didn’t have an ID, they should turn around and leave,” says Clausen.
Poll workers weren’t supposed to do that. According to the law, they were supposed to give voters who lacked IDs an affidavit. Once signed, the affidavit would allow people to vote. Jason Schulte, executive director of the Democratic Party of South Dakota, says that, “mostly on or near reservations,” people who forgot to bring their IDs “were not told about the affidavit scenario.” Daschle himself says he “heard from countless voters who experienced difficulty when attempting to vote.”
“Indians were disproportionately affected by the ID requirement,” says Sells, adding that there were just more hurdles for Native Americans to leap.
And in 2004, in the Daschle-Thune race, Daschle had to sue to bring a halt to open and very public efforts by the state GOP and the Thune campaign to intimidate Native voters:
Republican poll workers in Lake Andes were intimidating Native American voters on Monday, a federal judge ruled early today.
Republicans may not write down license plate numbers or follow Native Americans from polling places during today’s election, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled in a temporary restraining order.
The ruling comes after Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle sued his opponent, John Thune, and the GOP in federal court in Sioux Falls on Monday, asking Piersol to stop what Democrats say was intimidation of voters.
. . .
Daschle charges that GOP poll observers have been crowding voters, making notes as they voted and writing down license plate numbers of cars bringing them to vote.
Thune’s campaign also engaged in overtly racist imagery, distributing a flyer showing prairie dogs that said:
“The dogs are lining up to vote for Tom Daschle.”
In Indian Country, particularly in places like South Dakota, that’s a serious dogwhistle, no pun intended – it harks back to the old “No Dogs or Indians Allowed” signs in white establishments (a red version of Jim Crow), and invokes the old white pejorative of referring to Indians as “dogs.”
And the flyer wasn’t created and distributed until after a sizeable number of Indians (more than 1,000 at Pine Ridge; more than 1,300 at Rosebud alone) had already taken advantage of early voting and cast their ballots.
In 2008, the Montana GOP pulled the same sort of shenanigans in their own state:
On Monday afternoon, state GOP officials delivered voter registration challenges to Missoula (3,422), Butte-Silverbow (714), Lewis & Clark, Glacier, Deerlodge, Hill, and Roosevelt counties.
So the Montana GOP is challenging 6,000 votes across the state – geared solely at Democratic-leaning and Native American voting areas. Jack Eaton, executive director of the Montana GOP is unapologetic:
The integrity of the voting process is something that has to be above reproach to have faith in the system. We aren’t trying to prevent anyone from voting. We want people to register properly.
Lest you think this only happens in the Northern states, here are a couple of examples from close to my home:
Jan Brewer helped implement such efforts in Arizona long before SB1070 began targeting Hispanics:
“I don’t care what they say to deny it, the function of this statute is to discourage people from voting,” says Joe Sparks, the veteran voting rights attorney who serves as counsel to the Intertribal Council of Arizona. “It’s not about protecting our borders; it’s about keeping minorities from voting,” including Hispanics as well as Indians born without state-certified birth certificates. In fact, the law asks Native Americans who lack other I.D. to produce a Bureau of Indian Affairs card number or a “tribal treaty card number” — cards and numbers that don’t exist. No tribe in Arizona has them, says Sparks.
And in Northern New Mexico:
In November 2004 during early voting in Precinct 13, Taos, New Mexico, John Kerry took 73 votes. George Bush got three. On election day, 216 in that precinct voted Kerry. Bush got 25 votes, and came in third.
Third? Taking second place in the precinct, with 40 votes, was no one at all.
Or, at least, that’s what the machines said.
Precinct 13 is better known as the Taos Pueblo. Every single voter there is an American Native or married to one.
Precinct 13 wasn’t unique. On Navajo lands, indecision struck on an epidemic scale. They walked in, they didn’t vote. In nine precincts in McKinley County, New Mexico, which is 74.7 percent Navajo, fewer than one in ten voters picked a president. Those who voted on paper ballots early or absentee knew who they wanted (Kerry, overwhelmingly), but the machine-counted vote said Indians simply couldn’t make up their minds or just plain didn’t care.
On average, across the state, the machine printouts say that 7.3 percent — one in twelve voters — in majority Native precincts didn’t vote for president. That’s three times the percentage of white voters who appeared to abstain. In pueblo after pueblo, on reservation after reservation throughout the United States, the story was the same.
Nationally, one out of every 12 ballots cast by Native Americans did not contain a vote for President. Indians by the thousands drove to the voting station, walked into the booth, said, “Who cares?” and walked out without voting for president.
Do you get it? If not, let me spell it out for you: In New Mexico in 2004, the voting machines were rigged to help George W. Bush. Not a conspiracy theory; I had my own little run-in with a state legislator trying to screw around with a voting machine two days before the beginning of early voting. It happened all over the state, but particularly in Native precincts. The underlying reasons are two-fold, and they are both spectacularly racist: One, they think we’re too stupid to notice or care, and too lazy to do anything about it anyway; and two, they’re counting on non-Native racism to believe that we’re so stupid and indecisive that, in the biggest race in the nation, record numbers of us would vote for every other race on the ballot but leave that one blank.
It’s racism, pure and simple. And there’s nothing funny about it.
Make no mistake: There is an orchestrated movement afoot in this country to deprive certain communities of color of their rights, and to disenfranchise them permanently, if possible. And the color red is right at the top of that list, along with black and brown.
We are two weeks away from perhaps the most important midterm election of our lifetime. We cannot allow this to continue. It stops now.
At NAN, we’re working behind the scenes to see whether we can help in a practical way. Voter registration in South Dakota ends Tuesday. We’re investigating the possibility of arranging for transportation to help folks get to the polls. If you live in the South Dakota area and might be able to help with this, please drop me an e-mail (addy’s in my profile). We’ll get you connected to other folks interested in doing this.
If, as is the case with me, you live too far away to help with transportation, keep an eye out for tomorrow’s diary. I’ll be posting a full contact list of the relevant officials who need to get calls and e-mails – not just from Indians, but from every person who cares about civil rights and the sacredness of the right to vote. If you want some contact info now, I can send you, via e-mail, a basic list of South Dakota officials, including the members of the state’s congressional delegation. But tomorrow’s list will, I hope, have more specific contact information for those in charge of South Dakota’s elections, plus major media.
We need your help, Kossacks, and we need it before Tuesday. Please, carve out five minutes this weekend to send a few e-mails, or call on Monday morning, or – if you’re local and able – help us get folks registered and to the polls.
Chi miigwech (“many thanks”).