Federal Court Orders South Dakota to Comply with Voting Rights Act

August 19, 2005 12:00 am

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Ruling Protects Rights of Native American Voters, Says ACLU

RAPID CITY, SD-The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that a federal court in South Dakota has issued a final ruling ordering the redrawing of legislative district lines to ensure there is no discrimination against Native American voters in 13 of the state’s 66 counties. The order came in a case originally brought by the ACLU on behalf of four Native American voters in December 2001, after the South Dakota legislature redrew the boundaries of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

“”The court’s decision ordering the redrawing of district lines is a victory for all South Dakotans because it reaffirms the importance of fairness at the ballot box, which benefits everyone, Indians and non-Indians alike,”” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the case. “”Every voter wants the integrity of his community preserved, not fractured, by redistricting. The legislative districts that the court has drawn will keep communities together, giving Indian voters the opportunity to elect representatives who share their interests, values and concerns. When citizens have confidence that their vote counts and that their voices will be heard, then democracy works better for everyone.””

Prior to this decision, which was issued yesterday by U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier, the court had ruled that the state of South Dakota had failed to submit its 2001 redistricting plan to federal officials for pre-approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The plan was then submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, which cleared it for implementation, but the plaintiffs claimed it was discriminatory nonetheless because it created a 90 percent supermajority of Indian voters by “”packing”” them into District 27, thereby violating Section 2 of the act. The court later agreed with this claim and in a lengthy 144 page opinion that was issued September 15, 2004, Judge Schreier gave the state an opportunity to fashion a new plan that did not discriminate against Indian voters. After the state refused to do so, the judge issued yesterday’s ruling ordering new lines drawn to comply with the Constitutional principle of one-person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act. The judge’s remedial order adopts one of the plans that had been originally proposed by the plaintiffs and their attorneys with the ACLU. Attorney Patrick Duffy of the Rapid City law firm of Duffy and Duffy served as local counsel on the case.

The court-ordered redistricting plan affects three legislative districts: District 27 will consist of Bennett, Haakon, Jackson and Shannon counties and encompass all of the Pine Ridge Reservation and all of its off-reservation trust lands. Native Americans will comprise 66 percent of the voting-age population in this district, which elects one senator and two representatives at large. District 26 will encompass Todd, Mellette, Tripp and Gregory counties and include the entire Rosebud Reservation and nearly all of its off-reservation trust lands. In District 26A, a single-member house district consisting of Mellette and Todd counties, and including all of the current Rosebud Reservation, Native Americans will constitute 74 percent of the voting-age population. And District 21, which will remain majority white, but be adjusted to ensure population equality, will consist of Jones, Lyman, Buffalo, Brule and Charles Mix counties. South Dakota is one of 16 states covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires covered jurisdictions to get federal approval before making changes to their election laws and procedures.

“”Judge Schreier’s decision is another important example of why Congress should reauthorize the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which are set to expire in 2007,”” said Sells.

For a copy of yesterday’s court order in Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine, go to: /node/35495.

For more information on the Voting Rights Act, go to: www.aclu.org/voting-rights.

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