Robert Doody,
ACLU of South Dakota
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February 10, 2012

What’s new in voter suppression land today? South Dakota is trying to prevent Eileen Janis — and hundreds of other citizens — from voting.

Eileen grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and does suicide prevention work. She registered to vote for the first time in 1984. “I always vote because my mom told me to,” she says.

But when she went to cast her ballot in the historic 2008 election, she found that she had been illegally removed from the voter rolls. Though she had been convicted of a felony, her sentence to probation meant that she had not lost the right to cast a ballot. “I went [to vote] with my son who had just turned 18. As soon as I tried to vote I was told no because I was a felon.”

The illegal denial of Eileen’s voting rights is part of South Dakota’s long and troubling history of violating the civil rights of Native Americans. Native Americans are highly over-represented in the criminal justice system, so denying voting rights to people on probation has an unfair and disproportionate impact on Native American voters.

The ACLU sued on behalf of Eileen and other Native Americans wrongfully purged from the rolls. We won, and South Dakota was ordered to make sure that people on probation were allowed to cast their ballots.

But the South Dakota legislature is now considering a bill that would strip Eileen and anyone else convicted of a felony of the right to vote, even if they never serve jail time and are living in their communities.

Measures designed to suppress the vote have been sweeping the nation, and South Dakota appears to be jumping on the bandwagon — but not if we can help it.

The Voting Rights Act gives the US Department of Justice (DOJ) the power to ensure that voting laws do not discriminate. Tell the DOJ to protect the right to vote in South Dakota and across the nation. And urge Congress to pass the Democracy Restoration Act, which would let Eileen — and all Americans with past convictions who are living in their communities — vote in federal elections.

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