A plastic sign outside a polling place in Andes Central High School on the Yankton Sioux reservation was clear and concise. "Photo ID required," it read.
The only problem, said Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes, South Dakota, was that the sign was illegal.
Sitting in a conference room decorated with a buffalo skull, hand-sewn medicine bags, and a poster that says "Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," Asetoyer explains how the law doesn't, in fact, require voters to have a photo ID. If you don't have one, you can sign a personal-identification affidavit.
"The whole issue around denying Indian people the right to vote because they don't have a photo ID puts in people's minds, 'They're not going to let me vote, anyway, so why should I even go to vote?'" she said on June 15, describing what happened at the city election and at a June 1 special congressional election. "It's an intentional act to disenfranchise the Native American vote."
Nobody knows how widespread the problem was on June 1.But at least 21 Native Americans were turned away from the polls because they didn't have a photo ID, says Bret Healy, executive director of the Four Directions Committee, a nonprofit voter-registration organization in Rapid City, South Dakota. He's collected signed statements from all of them.
"In one case, an election worker insisted that in order to use an affidavit, you had to have an ID," Healy says. "What had been drilled into folks was that you had to have an ID."
Chris Nelson, South Dakota's secretary of state, says state officials are trying to fix the problem by educating poll workers about the law.
"We know that in a few instances that it happened," Nelson says. "It was wrong. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen in November."
Native American voters have been courted (and feared) ever since 2002, when Democratic Senator Tim Johnson got 524 more votes than John Thune, who'd been handpicked by Karl Rove to run in the race. Indian voters turned out in unusually high numbers for the election and put Johnson in office. This year, Thune is taking on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. Native American voters may again tip a close election. It's a prospect that has, says Tim Giago, former editor of the Rapid City newspaper Lakota Journal, "stirred up a little fear in the hearts of Republicans."
Roughly 9,500 Native Americans voted in 2000, according to Healy, who's the former executive director of the state Democratic Party. In 2002, thanks to a get-out-the-vote campaign run by state Democrats, the number of Native American voters jumped to 16,500 -- with roughly 88 percent choosing Johnson.
The following year, Republicans in the state Legislature proposed a bill requiring voters to show a photo ID. Local activists were outraged. Many Native Americans don't even have driver's licenses, they said. And, yes, they can get a tribal ID -- if they pay $8. Requiring an ID would be tantamount to imposing a poll tax. The bill was amended so that people could sign a personal-identification affidavit if they didn't have an ID. Last year, it was signed into law.
The law has created problems. But South Dakota is hardly the only state to have imposed it. The number of states with voter-identification laws has actually risen over the past four years, from 11 in 2002 to 17 today. Most are located in the South, including Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
And -- surprise, surprise -- it's a partisan issue.
As Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a nonpartisan Web site that monitors election reform, says: "Republicans are on the side of security. They say if you don't have the law, you could have an illegal vote. Democrats use the 'D-word' -- disenfranchisement -- that you're going to frighten away the population that doesn't carry an ID, including the elderly, poor, and minorities."
On the macro level, the effects of voter-identification rules have been negligible, despite concerns on both sides. As Seligson points out, they've hardly made a dent in combating voter fraud. On the other hand, there's no evidence that suggests the law suppresses turnout. But it may have a depressing affect on individuals -- and that's where the D-word can rightly be used.
"I think voter identification has intentionally been used as the basis of some people being wrongly turned away from the polls," Seligson says. "That's disenfranchisement."
On September 3, the state Legislature's Rules Review Committee will vote on a proposal to prohibit signs outside polling places from stating "Photo ID required." Instead, they must spell out both options, explaining to voters that they can either show a photo ID or sign a personal-identification affidavit. Regardless of what the signs say, though, lawyers will closely watch the polls on the day of the "barn-burning election," as Healy puts it, in November.
Meanwhile, activist Asetoyer is still upset about the June elections. She grips the edge of a conference table as she talks.
"At the end of the day, there were more ballots than people signed in to vote," she says. "It's blatant, blatant crap -- it's blatant racism."
Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.