T. Denny Sanford didn’t break the law, but Secretary of State Steve Barnett, Department of Social Services Secretary Laurie Gill and Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price did! So says U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol, who ruled Thursday that those state officials violated the National Voter Registration Act by failing to help Indians register to vote.
The state’s violations of voting rights for Indians and others include the following:
- The state’s driver license change-of-address form requires applicants to check a box to apply that address change to their voter registration. The National Voter Registration Act says such address changes must be automatic unless an applicant opts out.
- The Department of Public Safety refuses to register voters at its offices if those wishing to register do not have a driver’s license, a Social Security Number, or an ID card. Instead, DPS cites state law that forces those applicants to go to the county auditor’s office to register. Federal law trumps state law, and the State misreads both NRVA and the Help Americans Vote Act: DPS has to provide voter registration services to folks without the usual ID.
- DPS failed to forward numerous voter registration applications to county auditors. DPS tries to shrug off this grave disenfranchisement as inevitable human error, but if you or I get a neighbor to register to vote and then fail to deliver that registration form to the courthouse, we get charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor. Failing to deliver a voter registration form is an error we simply cannot make!
- DPS has contracted with other government agencies in Indian Country to issue driver’s licenses but has failed to make sure those contracted agencies following the NRVA rules and register voters. DPS shrugs and says, “Not our problem”; NRVA and Judge Piersol say, “Yes, it is.”
- Department of Social Services wasn’t asking applicants if they wanted to register to vote until the plaintiffs sent DSS an NRVA notice letter in May 2020. NRVA says state agencies must be active, not passive, about getting people onto the voter rolls.
- DSS was not helping voters change their address for voter registration when they telephoned to change their address for DSS benefits. NRVA says DSS must provide the same voter assistance for callers as for in-person visitors.
- DSS wasn’t offering voter registration services to clients at the time of administrative renewals and six-month attestations of resources.
- DSS was failing to submit voter registration forms in a timely fashion.
- Judge Piersol did not issue a ruling on accusations that DSS has failed to help register felons who have completed their sentences. Judge Piersol granted summary judgment on the above issues; the accusation of disenfranchising voting-eligible felons rests on testimony that needs to be introduced in a court hearing by the actual witnesses. But read your own law, State officials: once felons have completed their sentences, have paid all their fines, and have cleared probation, they can vote!
- The Secretary of State has failed to properly oversee the voter registration process provide training to DPS and DSS to avoid violations of federal law.
- The Secretary of State incorrectly advised DPS and DSS to forward incomplete voter registrations to county auditors instead of addressing errors.
Department of Labor and Regulation Secretary Marcia Hultman is also a defendant in this case. However, Judge Piersol did not grant summary judgment on the allegations against DLR. The court will hear full arguments on DLR’s compliance with NRVA given the Department’s involvement with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act benefits, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
We thus have here an example of Secretary Barnett and Noem-appointed Secretaries Price and Gill failing to follow federal law and protect voter rights. I somehow don’t think this illegal disenfranchisement will come up in the Republican primary or at the Republican convention—remember, even the Republicans challenging Noem and Barnett are all about reducing voter rights and throwing voters off the rolls. We’ll have to wait for our Democratic candidates for Governor and for Secretary of State to spotlight these failures in the Secretary of State’s office and in our Cabinet offices and push for greater protection of the people’s right to vote.