Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman



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In the weeks leading up to the 2008 general election, Greg Lembrich, an associate in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman's New York office, decamped for rural South Dakota. He was there to work on voting rights issues with Four Directions, a social action group for Native American tribes in South Dakota that Lembrich has been involved with since 2002.

The Am Law Pro Bono 100One of the major issues that Lembrich, who acts as Four Directions's legal director, pushed for was early voting. In 2008, 64 out of South Dakota's 66 counties had six weeks of early voting. The two that didn't, Todd County and Shannon County, are two of the poorest counties in the country and are comprised mainly of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations. "The plan was that if people wanted to vote early they would have to go to nearby counties," says Lembrich. "But this is not paved America. It's very rural, and it's estimated that there is only one working car in every three households."

Lembrich and Four Directions began to pressure local election officials to open early voting sites on the reservations, arguing that they were assigning unequal voting status to the state's poorest residents. "Other people can just mosey into the county seat anytime in six weeks to vote and the people in the two poorest counties would be restricted to just one day," says Lembrich. Election officials finally relented, but only minimally, allowing two days of early voting in Shannon County and one in Todd County. Though over 500 voters cast their ballots in those three days, poll monitors reported long lines at the voting sites because of a shortage of election officials. In Shannon County, officials ran out of ballots. "There was money sitting in funds from the Help America Vote Act that could have been used, but it took so long to cut through all the red tape," says Lembrich.

South Dakota secretary of state Chris Nelson says he had authorized the use of federal funds to make early voting available in Shannon and Todd counties in the 2008 election, but that the decision on how they are used ultimately falls to the county commissioners. Lembrich, who went on a media blitz after the election to push the issue, says that he is hopeful that the 2010 election will see more early voting because of the attention it has received in the state. Both Lembrich and Nelson participated in a public radio call-in show where Nelson said he would work with the counties in 2010 to make sure they were aware of the funds available to them under HAVA. "My position in 2010 is no different than 2008," says Nelson. "The machinery is all in place and the money is there, but there is a local decision making body that needs to be consulted." Hopefully, that will be enough.

—Francesca Heintz | July 1, 2009

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