Federal Court Rules South Dakota Violated Voting Rights of Native Americans

Document Date: September 15, 2004
Affiliate: ACLU of South Dakota


ACLU Secures Major Victory in Landmark Redistricting Case

PIERRE, SD – In an historic victory for voting rights, a federal court today ruled that South Dakota violated the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act when it approved a statewide redistricting plan that dilutes the voting power of Native Americans.

“This is a landmark victory for the voting rights of Native Americans,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, which had challenged the plan. “Redistricting has historically been used to disenfranchise minority voters. Today’s decision will help rectify this longstanding problem.”

The ACLU filed the case on behalf of four Native American voters in December 2001 after the state legislature drew a new legislative district map that packed Native Americans into a single district. As a result, District 27, which encompasses the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations, has an almost 90 percent “supermajority” of Native Americans. The ACLU argued that packing the two reservations into one district disenfranchises Indian voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits abridging the right to vote on account of race or ethnicity.

“If the state had drawn districts more fairly, Native Americans would have been a majority in two districts instead of a 90 percent supermajority in only one,” Sells said. “The people on those reservations deserve to have at least one more person fighting for them in the legislature.”

The ruling in favor of Native American voters in South Dakota comes at a time when the country is closely monitoring the state’s current high-profile race between Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and his Republican challenger, John Thune. According to political observers, Native American voters have been aggressively courted by both political parties and, in part as a result of successful court battles led by the ACLU, they are increasingly regarded as a growing and important electoral constituency.

In today’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier wrote that the “current legislative plan impermissibly dilutes the Indian vote” and denies Indians in Districts 26 and 27 “an equal opportunity to access the political process.” The court gave the state legislature 45 days to submit proposals to rectify the disenfranchisement of Native American voters in South Dakota.

The ACLU said that although today’s decision may not directly impact the November election, it could help strengthen voter confidence among South Dakota’s Indian population and drive increased turnout at the polls.

In an earlier decision in May 2002, Judge Schreier ruled in favor of the ACLU and its Native American plaintiffs when she found that the South Dakota Legislature violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires jurisdictions to get federal approval before making changes to any election laws or procedures to ensure that states do not disenfranchise voting populations that have experienced a history of discrimination.

“The Voting Rights Act was created to ensure that state governments do not discriminate against traditionally marginalized and oppressed populations,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “Unfortunately, South Dakota has repeatedly flouted this important law at the expense of its Native American citizens. We applaud today’s decision and we will continue to monitor any election laws that may impact this population.”

Alfred Bone Shirt, a Sicangu Lakota activist and lead plaintiff in the case, also applauded Judge Schreier’s decision. “This is a milestone in correcting a system that has alienated my people from the political process for decades. We have the right to have a say in the direction of our future.”

Bone Shirt v. Nelson is one of six lawsuits brought against state and local officials in South Dakota in federal court by the Atlanta-based ACLU Voting Rights Project since 1999. To date, five of these cases have been resolved in favor of the ACLU and its Native American plaintiffs and one remains pending. That suit challenges a redistricting plan which the ACLU argues dilutes Native American voting strength in the city of Martin, South Dakota (Cottier v. City of Martin, SD).

Rapid City attorney Patrick Duffy served as co-counsel with the ACLU.

To read a copy of this ruling, go to /node/35085.

For more information on the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, go to /VotingRights/VotingRightsMain.cfm.