ACLU Sues South Dakota Secretary Of State Over Illegal Voter Disfranchisement

February 18, 2009 12:00 am

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Group Represents Voters Unlawfully Removed From Voter Rolls In November

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SIOUX FALLS, SD – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court today to restore the voting rights of two American Indian women who were illegally disfranchised in November’s election. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of South Dakota on behalf of Kim Colhoff and Eileen Janis, who attempted to vote last fall but were improperly removed from the voter rolls due to felony convictions. Because state law only disfranchises individuals sentenced to prison and both women were just sentenced to probation, election officials unlawfully took away their voting rights.

“These cases represent the tragedy of what happens when election officials do not know how to administer the law,” said Nancy Abudu, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Here the consequence was devastating – not only did election administrators take away these women’s constitutional rights in a humiliating way, but they robbed them of the opportunity to participate in this historic election. We are confident the court will make sure that this egregious kind of voter disfranchisement does not happen again.”

Colhoff and Janis, both residents of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, registered to vote for the first time in 1974 and 1984, respectively, and remained on the voter rolls until early 2008 after they were each convicted of a felony offense and sentenced to five years probation, but no jail time. Despite the fact that South Dakota only disfranchises those sentenced to prison, Colhoff and Janis were removed from the voter rolls without any notice and denied the right to vote at their polling places when they attempted to vote in November. In front of several other voters, election officials refused to allow Janis to cast either a regular or provisional ballot.

“It’s deeply disturbing that my vote was taken away because of administrative incompetence,” said Janis. “No lawful voter should be denied the right to vote simply because election workers don’t understand the rules. I will never get the chance to go back and make my voice heard. It’s hard not to feel like a second-class citizen when such a fundamental right is stolen in such a random way.”

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, South Dakota election officials removed Colhoff and Janis from the voter rolls in violation of their rights to equal protection and due process under the federal and state constitutions, the Help America Vote Act, the National Voter Registration Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The lawsuit names Secretary of State Chris Nelson, Shannon Country Auditor Sue Ganje and state board of elections members as defendants.

“The people of South Dakota deserve better from their government than this. The duty of every election official is to ensure that every eligible voter is given the opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote. At a bare minimum, officials should know the law so that votes are protected, not rejected,” said Robert Doody, Executive Director of the ACLU, South Dakota Chapter.

Attorneys on this case are Abudu, Bryan Sells and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project; Doody of the ACLU, South Dakota Chapter; and cooperating attorney Patrick Duffy.

A copy of today’s legal complaint is available at:

More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at:

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