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HIGH COST OF EQUALITY REFLECTED IN CONTINUING FIGHT FOR VOTING RIGHTS

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MISSOULA, Mont. — “Everyone talks about rights, but they have a cost,” said opposition attorney Sara Frankenstein, who represents Montana state and county defendants in the federal voting-rights case, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch.

For expense reasons, Montana Indians shouldn’t expect counties to spend money providing early-voting satellite offices, she said.

“We all can’t have everything we want,” chided Frankenstein (real name), who also represents two South Dakota counties in a similar case brought by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“Voting is the backbone of our democracy, and yes, it has a cost,” said OJ Semans, of Four Directions, a voting-rights proponent. “Indians and veterans understand this. Many have paid the price in full. Not the dollars and cents that Frankenstein references, but the ultimate cost paid by members of the armed forces—for some, their lives, for others, lifelong pain and disability.”

Lead plaintiff in the Montana case, Mark Wandering Medicine, was severely wounded serving with Marines in Vietnam. His son, also a Marine, was among the first to enter Iraq.

“We have paid these costs, serving with distinction in armed forces, in higher proportion than other population groups,” Wandering Medicine said. “During World War I, Choctaw Indians served as codetalkers. Codetalkers came from Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche nations. More fought on the front lines.”

More recently, Indians have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, paying a high price for equality. Among fallen soldiers: Corp. Antonio C. Many Hides-Burnside (Blackfeet), Corp. Brett Lundstrom (Oglala), and PFC Sheldon R. Hawk Eagle (Cheyenne River).

The Wandering Medicine case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The path was paved by those who also fought for equality during the civil rights movement: Rep. John Lewis (D-GA.), Jimmy Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered in the battle for equal voting rights.

President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other civil-rights leaders in attendance. Ten years later, Congress included Indians under the law.

In 2013, Indians are still struggling for equal access to the polls—fighting for rights already won by other minorities.

Four Directions, a South Dakota-based nonprofit, co-directed by OJ and Barb Semans, has long been a part of the voting-rights movement. In 2005, OJ Semans was among several Indian civil-rights activists who testified before the National Commission on Voting Rights Act. The commission’s report was submitted to Congress in February 2006. President Bush signed VRA reauthorization bill in July.

More recently, Semans participated in a friend-of-the-court brief in Shelby County (Ala.) v. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that will determine the fate of Section V of VRA, requiring pre-clearance by the DOJ or a federal court before state and local governments in certain regions with a history of discrimination are allowed to make election procedural changes.

In her biography for secretary of the South Dakota Republican Party, Frankenstein all but mocked the often lengthy struggle for minority voting-rights: “Sara particularly enjoys defending public bodies from lawsuits brought by the ACLU and other ‘civil rights’ groups,” she wrote.

Semans admits Four Directions has probably provided Frankenstein plenty of enjoyment, getting paid substantial amounts to represent Republican groups. She deposed and cross-examined Semans in the South Dakota case (mentioned above), and she wanted Four Directions to post a $90,000 bond in the Montana case—against the possibility of her losing.

Readers interested in civil rights should review South Dakota’s recent voting-rights history, described in Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine. It details discrimination against Indian voters, (illegal) denials of right to vote, voting-dilution schemes, barriers to voter registration, intimidation, (unsubstantiated) voter fraud, (claims of) noncompliance with VRA, and lack of polling-site access—all over the past 14 years.

In an October 27 interview, Frankenstein called Montana tribal members’ request for equal voting a “slippery slope” that would “open the floodgates” to more voting-rights litigation.

“Frankenstein is right, and this is what Republicans fear,” Semans said. “Imagine the voting power Indians would have if they achieved equal access to voting across the country. With her fear of financial costs and disdain for civil rights, she is on the wrong side of history. The struggle begun by the Freedom Riders continues today in Indian country. We are certain that the rights of Native Americans to equal access to the ballot box—using same opportunities their non-Indian neighbors take for granted—will be enforced by federal courts. It is our hope that our non-Indian friends will soon no longer need to be told by a court to follow the law of the land.”

—Edited and condensed from an article by OJ and Barb Semans, directors of Four Directions.

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