CNN host in 'uproar' over Indian voter fraud claims
Monday, January 12, 2004

A conservative political commentator who accused American Indians in South Dakota of "stuffing ballot boxes" denied on Saturday that his comments were racially biased.

Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist and CNN host, defended himself from a storm of criticism that erupted when he claimed Indian voters stole the 2002 U.S. Senate election. During an appearance on Capital Gang, he talked about the "uproar" he caused but didn't apologize for it.

"I don't have any bias against Native Americans or anybody else, but I do feel, based on my reporting, that there were very serious voting irregularities in 2002 in South Dakota, which the -- I also believe that -- which the Republican Party, for political purposes, did not want to protest," Novak said.

Novak didn't specify what he meant by "serious voting irregularities." He has never written a column about the election and, up until recently, never talked about it on CNN.

But on the January 6 broadcast of Crossfire, Novak had plenty to say. He said former Congressman John Thune, a Republican, lost the Senate race to Tim Johnson, a Democrat, due to voter fraud among American Indians. Only 524 votes separated the two.

"In 2002, Thune would have been elected to the state's other Senate seat, but the election was stolen by stuffing ballot boxes on Indian reservations," he said.

Even earlier, on a December 13 Capital Gang show, he briefly touched on the subject. "It was probably stolen, for all we know," he said of the election, adding: "The Indians, they got the phony Indian votes out there."

Both times, the remarks prompted criticism and disbelief from Novak's colleagues. On last week's show, James Carville, a Democratic consultant, defended Indians as "very, very, very good Americans. And very patriotic Americans."

Indian leaders jumped in the fray as well. Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and Frank LaMere, a former Democratic party official in Nebraska, wrote letters to Novak, demanding an apology.

"When people like you characterize our participation as suspect solely because you may not like the outcome, you undermine the fundamental principle upon which our great republic is built," Jandreau wrote in his letter.

Republicans and Democrats in the state didn't appreciate the comments either. Gov. Mike Rounds (R), Sen. Tom Daschle (D), Johnson and even Thune's campaign disavowed Novak's views. Thune is running against Daschle in the Senate race this year.

With Indians making up 8.5 percent of the state's population, both political parties are making concerted efforts to reach out to Indian Country. Johnson publicly and regularly acknowledges his debt to Indian voters and is leading an initiative, through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to register more Indians in the key states of South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington.

It's a role he found himself in after his close re-election in November 2002. In counties with significant Indian populations, voters chose Johnson overwhelmingly. In those with an even Indian-White split, Johnson won narrowly. Among the last votes to be reported on election night were those from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Once they were announced, it was clear Johnson won.

But even before the actual election, the conservative media and others linked to the Republican Party made charges of voter fraud. According to The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, a former lawyer for the Republican National Committee visited the state armed with pre-worded affidavits that some on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation signed. The documents were later discredited.

Mark Barnett, the Republican attorney general who investigated the allegations at the time, found them unwarranted. However, state authorities did charge two people for voter fraud among American Indians. One pleaded guilty to forging voter registration cards while the other is awaiting a trial for allegedly forging voter registration applications.

Despite the official conclusion of no widespread fraud, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, The National Review and other conservative commentators have kept the theme alive.

David Kranz, a political reporter the Sioux Falls paper, predicted the upcoming Senate race will be interesting to watch. "You have some very key Native Americans, including Russell Means, who tells Democrats, don't take this for granted anymore. You just can't," he said on Saturday's show. "Tim Giago, a gentleman who announced his candidacy against Tom Daschle in the primary said the same thing. He says, hey, Democrats, don't take, you know, the Native Americans for granted."

Show Transcripts:
January 13: Capital Gang | January 6: Crossfire | December 13: Capital Gang

Related Stories:
CNN host accuses Indians of stealing Senate election (1/9)
Indian vote eyed in race between Thune, Daschle (1/7)
Indian voter fraud claims linger after election (12/10)
Indian votes helped Johnson (11/7)

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