2 thoughts on “Time to enforce ‘food for votes’ law?

  1. Seth, it costs $2.95 to read/reread the article this week.

    I’ve already commented on this issue but you might get others to do so if they dont have to pay to access the article you are linking.

  2. Here you go.

    Time to enforce ‘food for votes’ law

    Seth Tupper


    In the wake of the Nov. 2 election, I’m tired of hearing politicians talk.

    I’m especially tired of hearing them talk — and never act — on so-called “food for votes” scandals.

    On Oct. 14, The Daily Republic was among the first to report that Democratic voter feeds and early voting rallies scheduled that day on the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations — plus one held previously on the Pine Ridge reservation — were allegedly illegal.

    The events were conducted anyway, and Democrats angrily defended themselves. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who participated in the events and ended up losing her U.S. House re-election bid, not only denied the illegality of the events but issued several accusations of her own. She said nobody ever complains when Republicans have doughnuts and coffee at voting events off the reservations, and she said the accusations smacked of racism and a desire to suppress the traditionally Democratic-leaning votes of Indians.

    Herseth Sandlin, other Democrats and some Indians also said the Republican allegations showed cultural insensitivity to the importance of food at Indian gatherings.

    “It’s respectful of the Native American culture to feed the people,” Herseth Sandlin told The Daily Republic.

    The day of the Crow Creek and Lower Brule events, Democrat U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson and Republican state Attorney General Marty Jackley issued a joint letter saying it’s illegal to provide anything of value as an encouragement to vote. They didn’t specifically address the Democratic events at Crow Creek, Lower Brule or Pine Ridge.

    Then, on Oct. 20, six days after the events and 13 days prior to the general election, Jackley announced he would investigate the three reservation feeds. There were few other developments in the controversy until this past Wednesday, eight days after the election, when Jackley finally announced he will not file any charges. Thursday, after I had written my initial draft of this column, Johnson said his inquiry into the reservation events remains open.

    “I will be issuing a statement after we complete our review of the matter with the Justice Department,” Johnson said. “I anticipate that will occur in the near future.”

    The relevant state law makes it abundantly clear that providing food in conjunction with an opportunity to vote is illegal, and there is similar language in a federal law. In fact, South Dakota Codified Law 12-26-15 describes such activity as “bribery.”

    The law says, in part, that it is a crime to “pay, lend, contribute, or offer or promise to pay, lend or contribute, any money or other valuable consideration to or for any voter or to or for any other person, to induce such voter to vote …” The maximum punishment for the crime is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

    I had a chance to confront Herseth Sandlin with the language in the law when she visited The Daily Republic for an editorial board meeting Oct. 19. She responded by saying there was no “quid pro quo” associated with the reservation feeds. In other words, Democrats didn’t tell Indians they had to vote for Democrats in order to eat.

    In response to that, I paraphrased the following legal interpretation, from a 1998 letter written to county auditors and political parties by then-Attorney General Mark Barnett and then-U.S. attorney Karen Schreier.

    “It is important that everyone understand that the law does not require that the offering of a meal, money, gifts, or whatever, be in exchange for voting a certain way or for a certain party,” the letter read. “Simply offering to provide these items of value, in exchange for showing up to vote, is clearly against the law.”

    I didn’t get very far with Herseth Sandlin. Seeing that I wasn’t going to sway her, I decided not to tell her my thoughts on what I’ll call the “food is important to Indians” defense. Food may indeed be culturally important to Indians, but my grandmother was a Dane, and it was pretty important to her, too. Yet I don’t see any exemptions in the voter bribery law for Indians, Danes or any other ethnic group.

    So, if it’s so “clear” that providing food for votes is illegal, as the Barnett-Schreier letter says, why do these kinds of controversies keep popping up? As evidenced by the 1998 date on the letter, this year’s controversy is hardly the first.

    I suspect it’s because there have been no, or few, prosecutions. In his Wednesday explanation of why he chose not to prosecute anybody, Jackley said, in part, that “the conduct at issue may well cross ethical boundaries,” but “that determination is for the voters and not a prosecutor.”

    If it’s really up to voters to make determinations about the voter bribery law, I will gladly step forward. I am in fact a voter, and I can plainly see that providing food or anything else of value as an encouragement to vote is illegal.

    It won’t do us any good to look backward and prosecute politicians for past offenses, but this latest controversy has provided us an opportunity for the future.

    From now on, politicians who commit voter bribery should be prosecuted, just like regular citizens are prosecuted when they commit a crime.

    Or, perhaps we should be more sensitive to the culture of politicians, which has traditionally placed a high value on being above the law.

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