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MERCER: Indian-language election issue deserves scrutiny

Bob Mercer

PIERRE -- South Dakota election officials don't need to make special provisions any longer for speakers of American Indian native languages in any of the 66 counties.

Previously the federal government had required special steps in 18 counties.

The audio recordings of American Indian speakers reading the names and the other information written on the election ballots don't have to be used in 2012.

Secretary of State Jason Gant said the AutoMARK voting machines will continue to be used, but the audio ballots will be only in English, rather than in English and Lakota.

Starting in 2006 the AutoMARK technology was used to deliver information in Lakota in 11 counties. They were Day, Dewey, Marshall, Roberts, Tripp, Ziebach, Mellette, Todd, Jackson, Shannon and Bennett.

Where required by federal law, some counties also needed to take steps such as providing interpreters at polling places to help voters and airing public service announcements in Lakota on American Indian radio stations.

One of the weaknesses in the federal requirements was the recognition only of Lakota, to the exclusion of Nakota and Dakota translations.

Dropping the requirements for 2012 will save some money. There were precincts where no one used the translations services. There also will be savings of time for county auditors and the state elections office.

But there is something odd about such a broad reversal by the federal government in a minority voting-rights matter, especially in these times.

The common explanation for the change in South Dakota is an increase in English proficiency and literacy since the 2000 census.

That very well might be true. But something else happened between the 2000 and the 2010 censuses on a nationwide basis that might also provide an explanation.

The 2000 census data were used for making the minority language determinations. The 2010 census results weren't.

Instead, a relatively new system was instituted nationwide by the U.S. Census Bureau. That system is called the American Community Survey.

The ACS has been three decades in testing and gradual adoption. It took effect nationwide in 2005.

It replaced the old longform census questionnaire that went to one in six households every 10 years. The new ACS samples 3 million addresses per year instead.

From those 3 million potential sets of results, various estimates are made. You can see the math getting fuzzy very fast.

For areas with populations below 65,000, the Census Bureau says the estimates have to be gathered over periods of up to five years in order to arrive at an appropriate sample size for data publication.

Under that methodology it doesn't seem likely that an accurate estimate could have been developed for any of the rural counties of Indian country in South Dakota.

Secretary of State Gant said he was surprised that South Dakota wouldn't need to provide Lakota translations any longer.

He's not closing the file on the topic, however. He sent letters to each of the nine tribes' elected chairmen and presidents, asking for their thoughts on a local solution for people who need translation help.

Gant also is asking what the tribe has done in tribal elections on this matter, including what worked and what didn't.

The 2010 census placed South Dakota's total population at 814,180. The white population was 699,392. The American Indian-Alaska Native population was 78,817.

The 2000 census identified South Dakota's total population at 754,844. The white population was 678,604. The AIAN population was 62,283.

South Dakota law requires that official ballots be printed in English. That requirement was passed by the Legislature in 1897 as part of a broader act titled, "To secure the secrecy of the ballot and the independence of voters."

South Dakotans spoke many languages then. Their political allegiances were much more varied too then than now. The 1896 elections marked the combination of Democrats and Populists under the name of the Fusion slate. One of the Fusion goals was election reform.

Fusion candidate Andrew Lee was elected governor, and Fusion candidates briefly put a dent in the Republicans' control of the Legislature. The brief time of Fusion power resulted in the constitutional amendments for the initiative and referendum that passed in 1898 as means for people to directly legislate as they saw fit.

Among the new Fusion lawmakers in 1897 was William Kidd of Aberdeen, who was a South Dakota leader in the Populist Party. In the state House of Representatives Kidd served as chairman for the Committee on Elections and Privileges.

The committee introduced the ballot-security and voterindependence act that became law. That law recognized the many immigrant voices in South Dakota but attempted to stop much of the voter manipulation that had been occurring among those immigrants.

While requiring the ballot to be solely in English for the first time, the law retained an 1891 provision that instructions to voters could be in English "and such as other languages as may be deemed necessary" at each polling place.

Both of those features remain in South Dakota's elections laws today.

What isn't recognized in state law is that other languages existed in South Dakota long before English arrived.

The "Lakota movement" in language and other subjects in our public schools that is increasingly under way stirs mixed feelings.

That Lakota and other Plains Indian languages were spoken but weren't written further complicates the consideration of what can be acceptable for general public use. Quebec uses French and English, but writing in Lakota is a modern invention.

The Irish perhaps offer some instruction on this matter, having seen their native ways of speaking and writing infiltrated by English, followed by a long effort to restore their own ways.

"The history of a people works on their language; the language limits what they can express of their world," poet Mary O'Malley wrote. "When a language is lost in the place to which it is native, the effects are by definition more extreme than when this happens because of migration or immigration."

Or so they say.