Feds say no charges in South Dakota political food fight

Pierre, South Dakota (AP) December 2010

A federal prosecutor said last week that his office won’t file charges pertaining to accusations of illegal vote-buying leveled after South Dakota political parties offered food or food coupons at campaign rallies.

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said that offering food or coupons at the rallies did not constitute vote-buying because those who attended and obtained the food or coupons could still choose how or whether to vote.

Republicans accused Democrats of violating state and federal laws by offering people food in exchange for votes. Democrats in turn alleged that a Republican legislative candidate broke the law by giving people at high school football games coupons for $1 off food sold at a snack bar.

“I consulted with voting rights experts within the Department of Justice and relied upon their experience and knowledge in making my decision,” Johnson said in a written statement.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley announced last month that his office would not file criminal charges in state court after investigating complaints from Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of improperly offering people food in exchange for votes.

Federal and state laws bar anyone from offering anything of value in exchange for a vote or to induce someone to vote.

The South Dakota Republican Party filed a complaint Oct. 14 claiming three rallies held by Democrats on American Indian reservations broke the law by offering people food in exchange for votes. Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who was defeated in the November election by Republican Kristi Noem, attended those rallies. After the meals, people at the rallies were offered a chance to be taken by volunteers to polling places where they could vote early.

 
Democrats two weeks later asked for an investigation of some Republican events, including a Rapid City get-out-the vote rally featuring Noem and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard. Democrats also complained that Republican state Rep. Jamie Boomgarden of Chancellor violated the law at high school football games by handing out coupons worth $1 off at the snack bar along with his campaign literature.

Lucas Lentsch, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, said GOP officials understand Johnson’s decision not to prosecute, but the issue of vote-buying is likely to be discussed by the Legislature in the session opening next month.

South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf said Democrats were sure no laws had been broken during the reservation rallies. The allegations of voting fraud were just attempts by Republicans to scare voters, he said.

“We had no doubt this was nothing but a political ploy from the Republican Party,” Nesselhuf said.

“There was no exchange of food for votes, none whatsoever,” Nesselhuf said. “It was a political rally that involved food. That has been happening since the beginning of political rallies.”

Republican state Sen. Jason Gant of Sioux Falls, who takes over as secretary of state next month, said he will ask the 2011 Legislature to increase the penalty for voting fraud and clarify what activities are illegal.

“It’s just very important we make sure our elections are fun fair and legally. We don’t want any irregularities taking place,” Gant said.




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