South Dakota isn’t getting much attention in this election cycle. The state is reliably red at the presidential level, and none of the major down-ballot races are particularly competitive. But that doesn’t mean that all is well and good.
Last month, officials in sparsely-populated Mellette County, South Dakota, voted to close all but one of the county’s four polling places. The move was touted as a cost-saving measure designed to save the cash-strapped county about $1,000. But it meant that some voters — and particularly Native American voters — would have to drive as many as 40 miles each way to the county seat in order to cast a vote. And, to make matters worse, South Dakota has one of the most restrictive absentee ballot laws in the country, requiring voters to have their absentee ballot applications notarized or witnessed by county officials.
Soon after the county’s move, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe contacted the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project for help. Mellette County is within the historical boundaries of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and Native Americans still make up about half of the county’s population.
We analyzed the impact of the county’s decision and concluded that the poll closure would have a severe and disparate impact on Native American voters. Not only would a higher percentage of Indians than non-Indians have to travel significant distances to vote or cast an absentee ballot, but Native Americans were also much less likely than whites to have access to a vehicle or the money to pay for gas. And, to add insult to injury, the all-white county commission moved the county’s only remaining polling place next door to the sheriff’s office, a place that would further deter Indians from voting because of a history of friction between Native Americans and law enforcement in the county.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. One of the largest television stations in the state ran a story on the poll closure, and word of our investigation got out. Less than 24 hours before we were prepared to file suit against the county on behalf of Native American voters, county officials called a hastily arranged meeting and rescinded the poll closing ordinance. Score another win for Indian voters in South Dakota!