The fight for equal voting rights for our Indian neighbors is making progress. Following the successful restoration of Indian voting rights to South Dakota's Help America Vote Act plan (over the morally indefensible objection and machinations of Republican Secretary of State Jason Gant), Buffalo and Dewey counties have agreed to establish satellite early-voting stations for Indian communities located far from their county courthouses. O.J. Semans, executive director of voting-rights organization Four Directions, tells me that just a couple weeks ago, Roberts County agreed to offer early voting at a new satellite station at Sisseton Wahpeton tribal headquarters at Old Agency, just a few miles from the courthouse in Sisseton. Dustina Gill, who ran for state legislature this spring, talked with the tribe and county and helped make that voting station happen.
In addition to Todd County, which passed a permanent resolution providing for an early-voting satellite station in 2010, we see significant gains toward providing Indian voters the same access to the ballot that we lucky white folks enjoy.
But then there's Jackson County. Jackson County is home to Wanblee, a community of hundreds of Indian voters who, if they wish to vote early, must make a good hour's round trip to the county courthouse at Kadoka. Wanblee was one of three communities where Four Directions requested and where Secretary Gant staunchly resisted funding early-voting satellite stations with HAVA money. Jackson County auditor Vicki Wilson continues to resist. Semans tells me that Auditor Wilson refuses to establish an early-voting satellite station in Wanblee for this November's election. According to Semans, Wilson and Jackson County claim that the HAVA funding mechanism remains unclear, even though the state HAVA plan makes clear to counties that they can use HAVA money for exactly this purpose of helping Indian residents cast early ballots.
Semans says Four Directions has attempted constructive dialogue with Jackson County for over a year. Now it may just be time to take Jackson County to court. Semans says a challenge to Jackson County's resistance to an early-voting satellite station would pass a Voting Rights Act test more easily than Brooks v. Gant, the Indian voting rights case the state lost last year. Compared to the Pine Ridge plaintiffs in Brooks v. Gant, Indian voters in Wanblee and elsewhere in Jackson County are a larger community, face a longer drive to the existing early-voting station, and face the same poverty that restricts their ability to travel to the polls.
A lawsuit to require Jackson County to offer an early-voting satellite station would go to federal court in Rapid City, where Semans said it would likely be heard by Judge Karen Schreier, who heard Brooks v. Gant. Judge Schreier ruled in favor of Indian voters in that case.
Early-voting satellite stations matter to Semans and Four Directions because they are a crucial component of voting rights equality. Four Directions' mission is to improve social and economic conditions, and the only way to do that, says Semans, is to help Indians get involved in politics. Voting and winning elections is a big part of that (and we'll never elect enough white guys to solve Indian problems). When Todd County passed its so-far unique permanent resolution establishing an early-voting satellite station, its commission consisted of three Indians and two non-Indians. Having Indians in office matters. Giving Indians the same access to the ballot matters.
But Semans notes that even the mechanism of these satellite stations provides a vital opportunity for involvement. When counties establish these stations in Indian communities, they can give Indians a chance to run these polling places. These Indian election officials work with the white officials at the courthouse. They demonstrate that Indians can run elections just as well as whites. They build trust with government officials than can translate into cooperation on other issues.
To put it in O.J. Semans's blunt terms, it's time for Jackson County to "wake up and smell the Indians." Helping Indians vote and elect leaders is good for all of Jackson County and South Dakota. It's what our laws and our commitment to democracy say we should do.