Jackley investigating food for votes claims

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) October 2010

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley says his office is investigating whether three rallies held by Democrats on American Indian reservations broke the law by offering people food in exchange for votes.

“The state has received various complaints about offering of food in exchange for or to induce voting,” Jackley told the Argus Leader. “We are treating the matter under our normal procedure of accepting any information, and making further determinations as the facts or evidence may justify.”

The state Republican Party asked for an investigation by state and federal officials last week after reports that Democrats were holding “feeds” on three reservations, but Democrats have said no laws were violated. Democrats advertised the feeds as an opportunity for voters to get something to eat, followed by the chance to be transported by volunteers to polling places for early voting.

Jackley and U.S. Attorney Brenden Johnson last week issued a letter reminding the state’s Republican and Democratic parties of a 1998 opinion by their predecessors that said state and federal law does not allow anyone to offer anything of value in exchange for voting, but that letter did not make it clear whether Jackley and Johnson think Democrats crossed the line with their events last week.

Jim Sword, the state’s attorney for Fall River and Shannon counties, sent the Department of Justice a memo outlining potential voting abuses, including an advertisement that linked a chili feed with the opportunity to vote for Democratic candidates. Shannon County includes a major portion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The U.S. attorney said last week that Department of Justice policy forbids officials from discussing the existence or likelihood of an investigation. Johnson said he has talked with Jackley about the issue.

Jim Leach, a Rapid City lawyer representing the Democratic Party, said the party “didn’t even come close to crossing the line.”

“The practice of providing food in campaign rallies is an old one in South Dakota,” Leach said. “Nobody has ever been prosecuted for allegedly crossing the line.”

However, South Dakota Republican Chairman Bob Gray said he expects an investigation will show that Democrats broke the law.

“The law is clear on this issue, and they were warned by both the attorney general and the United States attorney, yet they continued their food-for-votes scheme anyway,” Gray said.

To bolster their argument, Republicans released two videos of Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, one of the Democratic officials who participated in the events, speaking last week at the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations. In both, she implored voters to support her, and at Crow Creek, she told the attendees that they could cross the street and cast early ballots.

Herseth Sandlin, who is running for re-election, has insisted that there was nothing wrong with the rallies, and she said Republicans are trying to suppress voting on the reservations.

State Rep. Kevin Killer, a Democrat who helped organize a rally on Pine Ridge last week, said non-Natives don’t understand Native American culture, where it’s customary to host meetings and provide food for people who gather to discuss issues. He said non-Natives are misrepresenting the feeds.

Leach said he sees no difference between what Democrats did last week and what Republicans have done, including Sen. John Thune’s pancake feeds in 2004. But Republicans countered that those events were not directly linked with the option to eat and then be transported to the polls to vote.

Democrats never filed complaints against Thune or other Republicans for serving food at campaign rallies because they don’t think it’s illegal, Leach said. But if Jackley investigates last week’s Democratic events, he also should investigate Republicans.

“What Republicans seem to have a problem with is Native Americans getting the same treatment non-Indians have received, most notably with Sen. Thune,” Leach said.

“I think any investigation,” he added, “is a waste of time and money.”