Between the Lines

I'll admit it. I'm easily confused.

Especially about the apparent nefarious nature that can suddenly possess a seemingly innocent-sounding event that links politics and food and Native Americans.

Early last week, the Argus Leader reported that "Democrats in South Dakota are holding three early-vote rallies on reservations this week that will feature "feeds" in order to attract potential voters.

That activity continues a long tradition of pairing food with voter rallies in areas of the state where Democrats garner as much as 95 percent of the vote.

Strong Indian turnout has been the difference in statewide races in past years, and it could be critical in upcoming races. The emergence of early voting has only intensified efforts to get out the vote in Indian Country.

Depending on how it's done, the practice of offering food at voting rallies can come close to violating the law.

"A lot of it depends on the context of how it's being done," Secretary of State Chris Nelson said. State law forbids candidates and campaigns from "offering anything of value" to get people to vote – not just to vote for a particular candidate or issue, but to vote in general.

In 1998, then Attorney General Mark Barnett and then U.S. Attorney Karen Schreier issued a written warning to political parties about offering "a meal, money, gifts or whatever" in exchange for voting."

Um. I guess that makes sense.

This story reminded me of an event held here in Vermillion in late July by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Corps officials, in the midst of conducting the Missouri River Authorized Purposes Study (MRAPS), wished to receive input from members of the state's Native American population.

Due to the relationship tribes have with the Missouri River, and their status as independent sovereign nations, the meeting in Vermillion was held specifically to collect tribal input for the Missouri River study, which specifically is a broad-based, Congressionally authorized effort to review the project purposes established by the Flood Control Act of 1944.

And, before hearing input from people who decided to attend, ranging from Vermillion-area citizens who only had to travel a few miles to reach the meeting site on the USD campus, to interested Native Americans who had spent a good portion of the day driving from Pickstown and Rosebud and many other points in between on nearby reservations to Vermillion, the Corps did something that I thought was a bit gracious.

They served lunch. Which I'm sure the somewhat weary and hungry travelers appreciated.

I know a meeting of the Corps and a get-out-the-vote rally aren't the same things. The Corps wasn't asking Native Americans to vote in November. It could be argued by the more cynical among us that the Corps shouldn't have served food before beginning its meeting, since it clearly could be seen, by some observers, I suppose, as an attempt to perhaps influence Native American participants.

Judging from the input the Corps received, however, I think it can safely be said that local tribal criticism of some Corps policies wasn't really blunted much.

Anyway, South Dakota Republicans, upon reading the Argus story, went a bit gaga on Oct. 14.

This landed in my e-mail that morning:

"South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Bob Gray today called for a complete investigation of the recent reports that the South Dakota Democratic Party is offering 'food for votes' in several locations throughout South Dakota.

"Over 10 years ago, United States Attorney Karen Schreier and South Dakota Attorney General Mark Barnett told South Dakota Democratic Party officials that this practice is indeed illegal. While the candidates have changed, the law hasn't," Gray said. "Stephanie Herseth Sandlin should know better. In her desperation to hold onto her seat, she's pulling out all the old tricks."

Attorneys, on behalf of the South Dakota Republican Party, mailed letters today to States' Attorneys in Shannon, Lyman, and Buffalo Counties; Attorney General Marty Jackley; and United States Attorney Brendan Johnson asking for an investigation into this food-for-votes scheme.

"The old practice of offering food or cash for people to vote must end," Gray said. "Every South Dakota adult has the right and responsibility to vote, but nobody ought to be paying or feeding anyone to do so. South Dakotans deserve fair and honest elections that are free from corruption and vote buying."

Um. I guess that makes sense, too. But … on Sept. 22, KOTA television reported:

"Republican candidates spoke out to their constituency Wednesday to raise awareness about early voting.

As absentee ballots have been available for over a week now in Pennington County, candidates of all parties are encouraging people to vote.

Kristi Noem, Dennis Daugaard and other Republican candidates met with voters over food and drinks.

"You never know what's going to come up in your schedules and believe it or not some people actually forget to vote. So if we can get people to come and vote, it's a done deal," said Republican candidate for Dist. 33 House of Representatives Phil Jensen.

The deadline for voting is still two months away."

In late October 2004, a New York Times story chronicled the final days of the Tom Daschle/John Thune U.S. Senate race, when the two men were rustling up every last vote that they could.

Daschle visited Howard, wrote reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who also noted, "The Daschle event, a pancake breakfast, was a more formal affair. Well over 100 people, silver-haired ladies and beefy men in plaid shirts and dusty work boots, turned out to hear the senator speak. They call him Tom; most had already met him."

Later in the story, writing about Thune's campaign, Stolberg wrote, "For Mr. Thune, who is holding his own "pancake feeds," the race is a referendum on the minority leader, whom he portrays as a creature of Washington, not of South Dakota. "If he is just a conduit for federal money, any senator can do that," Mr. Thune said in an interview. "But a senator is about more than that; it is about representing the values and beliefs of the people you represent."

At a pancake dinner in De Smet, a farming community made famous by the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, people seemed to agree."

The Thune and Daschle campaigns eventually brought the two men to Vermillion during the final week before the election. Daschle held an evening meeting at The Eagles. I reported in the Oct. 27, 2004, Plain Talk that as Daschle spoke, "his campaign served an enthusiastic crowd barbecue and baked beans." That same week, Thune held a morning meeting at The Eagles. He and his wife, Kimberley, hosted a pancake breakfast.

The Oct. 29, 2004, Aberdeen American News published a report of Thune speaking to people during a campaign stop in Fort Pierre. As he spoke, several hundred people lined up for pancakes. "I believe this election, like the one two years ago, is going to be decided by a handful of votes. It's going to be a close election, so every single vote is going to matter," Thune told the Fort Pierre crowd. He asked those eating pancakes to give his campaign the names of any voters still undecided in the race.

So, like I earlier admitted, I'm easily confused. How about you?

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