(Editor's Note: Adds comments from South Dakota Democratic Party spokeswoman and clarifies source of information regarding Gordon and Drapeaux)
(CNSNews.com) - Reports of voter registration fraud involving Democrats and Indian reservations are pouring out of South Dakota, the home state of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Less than three weeks before the mid-term election, the allegations complicate one of the closest Senate races in the country, one Republicans hope to win in order to regain control of the chamber.
A Zogby International poll of 500 likely voters conducted Oct. 9-11 found that 45 percent of voters favor GOP Rep. John Thune, with 43 percent favoring incumbent Democrat, Sen. Tim Johnson. Ten percent remained undecided.
The FBI and the state attorney general have launched investigations into incidents in which employees of the state Democratic Party allegedly tried to register dead or nonexistent people to vote absentee in the November election.
Voters are allowed to vote absentee between Sept. 24 and Oct. 21. The state works largely on an honor system in which voters who go to the polls on Election Day aren't asked for identification.
At least six counties near Indian reservations are reportedly implicated in the investigation: Dewey, Pennington, Fall River, Charles Mix, Shannon and Ziebach.
In Ziebach County, according to news reports, someone allegedly sent in an absentee ballot application for Denise Red Horse, a woman who died in a Sept. 3 car accident. Her application was signed Sept. 21, more than two weeks after her death, and reportedly mailed with a bundle of other applications by the Democratic headquarters.
The Wall Street Journal reports a Shannon County election clerk received a high number of new voter registrations, many "clearly signed by the same person" and some hailing from Nebraska.
Bret Healy, the executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, has said he notified the U.S. attorney about the fraud and subsequently fired contractor Becky Red Earth-Villeda after she allegedly submitted invalid voter registrations.
According to the Journal report, two former Daschle staffers, Rich Gordon and Brian Drapeaux, head the Democrats' Indian voter project. But, Sarah Fineberg, communications director for the state Democratic Party, Thursday disputed that Gordon is affiliated with the Democratic Party. She added that only one person associated with the Democratic Party-independent contractor Becky Red Earth-Villeda-is under investigation.
Fineberg confirmed that Democrats have made outreach to potential Indian voters a priority in this year's election.
"Have we made a strong attempt to register Native Americans to vote and to do our best to get as many of these people as possible to participate in the Democratic process? Yes," said Fineberg. "That's an appropriate thing to do, because Native Americans, just like everyone else, deserve a seat at the table and deserve their voice to be heard, and [in] one of the most important elections to ever come to South Dakota."
According to Fineberg, the party has set up voter registration tables at state fairs and other gatherings as part of its efforts to boost Indian registration.
FBI special agent Paul McCabe said he could not comment on specifics of the agency's on-going investigation, which is being conducted by the agency's Minneapolis office. The FBI became involved because Indian reservations come under federal jurisdiction.
Christopher Maynard, a Dakota State University political scientist, doubts that incidents of voter fraud are part of a comprehensive, intentional effort on the part of state Democrats.
"Much of the fraud that's been found so far has to do with money more so than trying to influence the election," said Maynard. "The problem comes in when many of these groups, such as the Democratic Party, give money based on how many people you can canvas, how many absentee ballots you can bring in."
He believes the Senate race will remain focused on issues like Iraq, Medicare, prescription drugs, and Social Security.
But the election could remain tainted by the accusations of fraud, says Maynard, if the attorney general is unable to unearth any evidence of the wrongdoing between now and the election, if the national media publicizes the matter, or if Johnson wins by a slim margin.
If Johnson wins by a few hundred votes, "then you might have a situation where the Republicans contest it in the court system," he predicted.
And it's Johnson who has an edge, Maynard believes, thanks to pork barrel politics.
"The reason this race is in a dead heat right now [is] because Daschle is in charge of the Senate, and that gives South Dakota a huge advantage as far as appropriations," he said.
But on Election Day, Maynard says, it's voter turnout that will determine the outcome, especially the senior vote.
"If it snows that day and it's cold and miserable and that brings down the elderly vote," he said, that could spell trouble for Johnson.
E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.
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