SD reservation alcohol vote too close to call

CARSON WALKER, Associated Press
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Signs just outside of Whiteclay, Neb. urge a no vote on the alcohol referendum for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Chris Huber)

Signs just outside of Whiteclay, Neb. urge a no vote on the alcohol referendum for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Chris Huber)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A vote to end prohibition and allow alcohol on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation got most of the votes, but the election outcome was too close to call late Tuesday because of a high number of challenged ballots.

The measure got a majority of yes votes in the unofficial count — 1,645 to 1,494, according tribal spokeswoman Tony Red Cloud, who texted a photo of the handwritten results Tuesday night to The Associated Press.

But because 438 votes were challenged — more than the difference — the outcome of the election won’t be known until those are checked, said tribal president Bryan Brewer.

In the next couple of days, election workers will verify that the people who cast those challenged ballots are enrolled members and living on the reservation.

“People that might not have ever voted in the past when they go to vote. Because they’re not on the census, on the rolls, they will challenge that vote. And sometimes people might move to a different district where their name isn’t on it, they’ll challenge that vote,” Brewer said of the usual reasons. “Usually challenged votes don’t change an election, but that’s a lot of challenged votes.”

People stood in line before polls opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday, said Francis Pumpkin Seed, election commission chairman.

A high number of absentee ballots were also filed, he said.

Of the 43,000 Oglala Sioux Tribe members, about 26,000 live on the reservation. Only tribal members 18 and older who live on the reservation can vote, though those who have moved away but haven’t updated their addresses might still cast some of the ballots, he said.

The nine polling places around the reservation, which is larger than the state of Delaware, closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday. But the counting didn’t start until about 90 minutes later because all ballots were taken to the town of Pine Ridge, so it took a while for the outlying ballots to arrive.

Pumpkin Seed said protesters operating a camp in the nearby border town of Whiteclay, Neb., threatened to disrupt voting, so tribal police and election monitors on Tuesday watched over the nine polling places on the reservation.

Ballot counting was also moved from the districts to the Billy Mills community center, as a precaution, Pumpkin Seed said.

“We’re not going to allow disruptions,” he said. “Mills will be under lock and key and police will be guarding it.”

Demonstrator Misty Sioux Little Davis said the group did rally against legalization but did not make any threats.

“We didn’t disrupt nothing,” she said. “We had a rally and a walk from the hospital to the tribal building across the street. We just did a rally there. We demonstrated to encourage people to vote no to alcohol.”

Pine Ridge is the last South Dakota reservation where alcohol is illegal. It’s unclear how many reservations nationwide are still dry. If Tuesday’s measure passes, profits from alcohol sales would be used for education, detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.

Critics said legalization would only exacerbate the reservation’s troubles. Alcohol is blamed for some of the highest rates of domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime in Indian Country.

Both sides in the debate agree something must be done to limit the scourge of alcohol on the Lakota people. They also share a goal of putting out of business the current main suppliers of booze for tribal members — four stores in Whiteclay, two miles south of Pine Ridge, that sell millions of cans of beer a year.

Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol for two months in 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.

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