Election-related anxiety must be heading north in South Dakota. On Oct. 14, following Democratic Party Indian-reservation rallies involving frybread, Republican Attorney General Marty Jackley warned against food at campaign events, saying it was a potential violation of state and federal law. The GOP accused Democrats of trading food for votes and demanded an investigation. For every political hopeful nationwide whose waistline is expanding on the rubber-chicken circuit, this may be the best news yet in an overheated campaign, which in South Dakota features close races, including for the sole Congressional seat, now held by Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
On behalf of the Democratic Party, a spokesperson pointed out that Republicans are strangely close-mouthed on other treats -- doughnuts that Democrats have served at non-reservation events, and the GOP gubernatorial candidate's hot dogs and chips, offered free via his Facebook page to those who showed up for a Sept. 22 early-voting rally -- making it clear the allegations are aimed at Native people, who are largely Democratic, and intended to appeal to the worst in the electorate.
"I'd welcome an investigation, but Republicans have no intention of supporting one," said Democratic state legislator Larry Lucas. "I was at one of the reservation events mentioned, and it was nothing more than the food that is always present at Native community gatherings, nothing improper, no quid pro quo." So what's it all about? "It's a way to influence independent and undecided voters with rumors of Democratic unethical practices," Lucas said. "And it's a way to oppress Native people and suppress their access to voting."
Indeed, the frybread imbroglio follows a busy year in Native-vote suppression for South Dakota's GOP-controlled administration, including a failed attempt to restrict Oglala Sioux Tribe voters to a mail-in election that -- here's the kicker -- didn't include an election official to whom voters could mail their ballots; the successful exclusion from early voting of most of the state's major Native population centers while offering it in predominantly white county seats and satellite locations; and withholding Help America Vote Act reimbursements until December, meaning truly destitute communities (i.e., reservations) that can't pay the expenses upfront still can't afford full-fledged elections.
Jackley's warning can be seen in the context of yet another Republican AG's view of the Native vote. Among the Official Opinions on Jackley's state website is William Janklow's denunciation of the extension of the Voting Rights Act to Native Americans. The law was "a facial absurdity" that was "plaguing South Dakota," wrote Janklow, who in addition to serving as the state's governor and top legal official, was convicted of manslaughter in 2003.
If the important races are still close on Nov. 2, one might wonder if the Republican Party will turn up the heat even further on the Native vote, with a rerun of the last several major elections, when party operatives threatened those arriving at reservation polling places and waiting on line, poll workers made illegal challenges, and police were used to intimidate Native voters -- meaning the frybread fracas, silly though it seems, could be a harbinger of serious events to come.