Politics & Policy

Feeding Election Controversy

If you’re hungry for some conflict, look at the fight raging in the race for South Dakota’s sole seat in the House. Local Republicans are accusing incumbent Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of violating state election law. Her alleged crime? Offering free food to voters — especially those on Indian reservations — in order to encourage them to cast early ballots.

South Dakota Democrats hosted several “feeds” on reservations throughout the State, at which they advertised free food and provided free transportation to polling places for early voting. Jim Leach, who represents the Democratic Party in South Dakota said it was conventional. He told the Argus Leader that, “The practice of providing food in campaign rallies is an old one in South Dakota.” But Republicans consider this a transparent — and unpalatable — political maneuver. Chairman Bob Gray pointed out that offering anything of value in return for votes is a felony. “The law is clear on this issue,” he said. “They were warned by both the attorney general and the United States attorney, yet they continued their food-for-votes scheme anyway.”

The controversy is developing. Soon after Republicans made the accusation, Sandlin was asked if she thought it was serious enough to gain the Attorney General’s attention. “I think it’s clear the U.S. Attorney and Attorney General aren’t going to pursue any investigation because there isn’t anything illegal going on by either political parties when they invite potential voters, invite candidates to participate in rallies and encourage people to vote,” she said — neatly avoiding the crux of the matter.

But Republicans thought differently, and, now, according to the Argus Leader, state Attorney General Marty Jackley has confirmed his intention to investigate the matter. He issued a statement:  “The state has received various complaints about offering of food in exchange for or to induce voting…We are treating the matter under our normal procedure of accepting any information, and making further determinations as the facts or evidence may justify.” U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson also confirmed that he had met with Jackley to discuss the matter.

As if the whole thing wasn’t unappetizing enough, Democrats are playing the First Americans card. “What Republicans seem to have a problem with is Native Americans getting the same treatment non-Indians have received,” said Jim Leach. And, according to the Argus Leader, Democratic State Rep. Kevin Killer, complained that non-Natives had misunderstood Indian culture, in which it is traditional to have food at meetings for important discussions. “To be a good leader, you have to feed people,” he explained.

We’ll see if the Attorney General agrees. Sandlin’s office has yet to return requests for comment. 

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