Pairing Food, Early-Vote Rallies Raises Legal Risks

Jonathan Ellis, Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), October 14, 2010

Democrats in South Dakota are holding three early-vote rallies on reservations this week that will feature “feeds” to attract potential voters.

That activity continues a long tradition of pairing food with voter rallies in areas of the state where Democrats garner as much as 95 percent of the vote.

Strong Native American turnout has been the difference in statewide races in past years, and it could be critical in upcoming races. The emergence of early voting has only intensified efforts to get out the vote in Indian Country.

The practice of offering food at voting rallies can come close to violating the law.

“A lot of it depends on the context of how it’s being done,” Secretary of State Chris Nelson said. State law forbids candidates and campaigns from “offering anything of value” to get people to vote–not just to vote for a particular candidate or issue, but to vote in general.

In 1998, then-Attorney General Mark Barnett and then-U.S. Attorney Karen Schreier issued a written warning to political parties about offering “a meal, money, gifts or whatever” in exchange for voting. Barnett followed that with another letter five months later that said under state law, “any giveaways or incentives offered as an encouragement for people to vote are prohibited. The statute is very broad and should be so construed.”

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The reservations have been key voting centers for decades. The Native American vote helped propel Robert F. Kennedy to victory in his 1968 primary in South Dakota.

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