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South Dakota is in court again over policies that disenfranchise Indigenous voters. Many counties eliminated absentee ballot drop boxes that were used in a limited way in 2020, and the state passed a new law banning private foundations and individuals from funding part of the expenses of running local elections when government support falls short.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill into law in 2021 requiring that only public funds pay for elections. 

Foundations funded by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg offered grants to support underfunded election administrators in various parts of the country last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shortage of poll workers and expensive safety measures that Republican leaders in some states refused to fund.

“In 2020, we saw Mark Zuckerberg pour ‘Zuck Bucks’ into local election operations across the country… We will not risk creating avenues for big-tech billionaires to unfairly influence our free and open elections,” Noem said in a statement after signing the measure. “We take election integrity very seriously in South Dakota.”

But Noem has had no issue with private contributions funding other aspects of government in South Dakota. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity sued for public access to information about Noem’s use of a private donation from a Republican mega-donor to deploy the state’s National Guard to the Texas border. The move was criticized as a political stunt with no tangible benefit to the state’s residents but rather an attempt to raise Noem’s national political profile among right-wing Republicans. Concern was also raised about the idea of a political donor bankrolling, or perhaps through the offer of a donation, even commissioning, use of the military. 

Indigenous voters face unique barriers

Indigenous people make up about 9% of South Dakota’s population and face an outsized burden when it comes to voting.

A 2017 survey showed that almost a third of Indigenous people in the U.S. have been prevented from voting because of the distance they have to travel to cast a ballot. The trip to vote can be more than 150 miles for some.

Plus, mail service on reservations is generally poor, meaning that voting absentee can be unreliable for many Indigenous people in the state.

On top of that, some local voting officials won’t accept tribal identifications as a way to register to vote, a process that’s already difficult.

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Voting rights advocates have also accused South Dakota of gerrymandering legislative districts to dilute the voting power of Indigenous communities. In September, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe won a preliminary injunction against Lyman County in which a federal judge ruled the county must propose a new redistricting plan by 2024 to ensure Indigenous people are adequately represented on the local Board of Commissioners.

Earlier in 2022, another federal judge sided with the Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes and ruled the state must provide more access to people to register to vote, in places like public assistance agencies and drivers’ license offices.

Registration barriers and voter ID

South Dakota is one of only 10 states that doesn’t have online or mail-in voter registration. That means voters have to register in person to be able to vote.

On top of that, there’s a strict voter identification law that’s been in place since 2003. Acceptable forms of identification include a South Dakota driver’s license or state-issued photo ID card, a passport or other ID issued by the federal government, a student ID from a South Dakota high school or accredited college, or a tribal photo ID.

Formal early voting isn’t an option in South Dakota, either. But voters can cast their absentee ballot in person during regular business hours at local offices any day leading up to the election. Absentee ballots can be requested for any reason. They must be received by election officials by Election Day or earlier to be counted.

Dropping drop boxes

Two counties in South Dakota briefly started using drop boxes for absentee ballots in elections amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and a national slowdown in U.S. Postal Service delivery two years ago.

But in the name of preventing voter fraud, of which there is no evidence, elections officials in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties announced they would no longer supply them and the move garnered support from Noem.

Less information, fewer watchdogs

Voting rights advocates also lament a South Dakota voting access problem that goes beyond state policy decisions: Finding reliable information about the process and fact checks on what politicians say is behind those policies.

The state has many, vast news deserts. Most counties have one or fewer local newspapers — and most of those are weeklies, according to a 2019 University of North Carolina study. Over the last decade, South Dakota – along with regional neighbors Minnesota and Wisconsin – has lost the most newspapers per capita, according to a 2022 report by Northwestern University.

Couple that lack of news content with a lack of internet broadband and there’s no doubt, advocates say, that it contributes to low engagement and low turnout. When 32% of voters showed up to the polls for primary elections in South Dakota this year, it made headlines as a success even though national averages tend to hover around 40% for similar elections. 

“Without that local news piece, it’s hard to get information on candidates,” said Amy Scott-Stoltz of the South Dakota League of Women Voters chapter. “It’s hard to get information on what’s going on at your school board, your city council, your county commission, your state legislature.”

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Robby Korth

Robby Korth is a public radio reporter who lives and works in Oklahoma City. He is the education policy...