Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Outrage in South Dakota


The intimidation and scare tactics used in the South during the 50s and 60s to keep blacks from voting is being recycled in the great plains of the Midwest. We got a tatse of that here at DWT when we endorsed Kevin Killer for the South Dakota state legislature in 2008. But that's hardly when it began.
In 2002 Republican John Thune was challenging incumbent Democrat Senator Tim Johnson. Thune was the golden boy of the state GOP and started the race several points up. As the race tightened, Johnson closed the gap and pulled a few points ahead. In the final few weeks of the campaign, the Republicans fell back on their old tricks and started to make accusations of voter fraud on the Indian reservations. There was never any evidence of this and, in an investigation after the election, the Republican Attorney General and Secretary of State both found that the charges were completely baseless. 
Tim Johnson won the race by 527 votes. The right wing of the Republican Party didn’t give up and continued to blame the Native American vote. Their partisans passed a series of bills during the next couple of legislative sessions that severely weakened the strength of the reservation vote. You will hear more about that in a minute.  

The Republicans have controlled the Secretary of State office for the past 36 years and because of that have been able to implement policies that have severely disenfranchised Democratic voters. The ACLU and others concerned about the clear violations of the Voter Rights Act have successfully sued the state time and time again, but those intent on denying the rightful votes of the native American population continue to get more creative and are undeterred by threats of more lawsuits. In their own narrow-minded partisan bigotry, they seem to thrive on them.   

The office of Secretary of State is open this year and the three Republicans running will no doubt continue this horrific tradition.

Compounding the outrage of the conservatives' systematic attack on the Native American population is that the front runner for the Republican nomination at the convention in late June is Tom Diedrick. In addition to leading the charge on many pieces of legislation that sought to challenge enfranchisement to Native Americans and to weaken the Democratic voting base on the reservations, Diedrick eventually became the Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Diedrick, who is also a lawyer, was so committed to protecting the reputation of his caucus that he went so far as to represent GOP legislative leader Ted Klaudt in court. Yes that Ted Klaudt. The 550 pound child molester who went from serving 8 years in the South Dakota House of Representatives to serving 44 years in the South Dakota prison system.   
Diedrick would be a devastating Secretary of State. He is so overly partisan he would try to get a serial child molester off just to save face for the Republican caucus.
Fortunately we have a great alternative. Ben Nesselhuf has been a legislator for the past ten years and is now the candidate recommended by the South Dakota Democratic Party to be the next Secretary of State. Ben has been a progressive champion on many important issues. In a red state, he has consistently stood up to the conservative majorities in the South Dakota legislature fighting for women’s rights, LGBT equality and Native American issues. 

Like I said, it's an open seat. Ben has built the strongest campaign anyone, Democrat or Republican, has ever had for this office. He has beaten the Republicans at fundraising and organizing. He has also been endorsed by the Secretary of State Project-- a group that we admire and that has been instrumental in electing both Debra Bowen in California and Jennifer Brunner in Ohio.  

Ben can win but he is going to need our help. You can learn more about his campaign at www.benforsouthdakota.com. I asked Ben to introduce himself to DWT readers today and here's what he had to say about himself and his campaign: 
I have served in the state legislature for the past 10 years. The typical elected official in the legislature is much more conservative than the average person in South Dakota. For instance, the legislature overwhelmingly supported a total ban on abortion that the voters of South Dakota rejected twice by a 10 point margin. After a decade, you would think that I have seen every outrageous act and viewpoint imaginable. Or at least, that is what I thought. Then I started looking at the changes that were made to the voting process in South Dakota in the past few years and how that impacted our Native American population. I was appalled. 
In South Dakota we have 66 counties. In 64 of them the voters have 6 weeks of no excuse, early access voting. This means that I can walk the 7 blocks to my county auditor, walk in and vote a full 30 business days before the election. I don’t need a reason other than I want to vote early.
There are 2 counties where there is no access to early voting within the county. These 2 are Shannon and Todd counties. Both of these counties are entirely within Indian reservations. This represents almost 24,000 people, over 90% of which are Native American. They have a very high Democrat performance. In fact, in the past 2 presidential elections, Shannon County had a higher percentage of Democrat votes than any other county in the United States.
These people are being systematically disenfranchised by a Secretary of State (who is termed out and just lost a primary for Congress) that doesn’t seem to want to fix the problem. The Help America Vote Act has provided $130,000 to the State of South Dakota to alleviate this problem. These funds can only be used to help the people in these two counties vote. Not one dime of it has been spent and nothing has been done.   

Shannon and Todd are 2 of the 5 poorest counties in the United States. The way they are being treated is shameful and, I believe, a violation of the Voter Rights Act. As the next Secretary of State of South Dakota, I will ensure that the thousands of Native Americans on these reservations are given the same access to the ballot as all of the other people in South Dakota. They deserve no less.

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