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The Voting Rights Act to the Rescue in South Dakota -- Again!

Bryan Fisher,
Washington Legislative Office
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October 15, 2009

Chalk up another victory for Indian voters in South Dakota. On September 30, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety announced that it was reversing a prior decision to close driver licensing stations in Todd and Charles Mix counties, home to the Rosebud and Yankton Sioux reservations, respectively. Residents of those counties had complained that the closures would force them to drive great distances to get a driver’s license or photo identification card necessary to vote in South Dakota, and they argued that the closures would have disparate impact on Native American voters.

In announcing the reversal, Public Safety Secretary Tom Dravland noted that the Voting Rights Act required Todd County to preclear any changes that could affect voting rights and that the City of Wagner in Charles Mix County had been subject to voting-rights litigation in the past. “The potential for litigation because of the closure, coupled with the Governor’s further review of the levels of use and the geographic location served, prompted him to direct us to continue servies in Wagner,” Dravland said. The closures were set to take effect on October 1.

The reversal came just weeks after news stories about the closure mentioned that the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project was investigating the matter. As part of that investigation, the ACLU requested the Department of Justice to ask the State for a formal preclearance submission under the Voting Rights Act prior to any closure. The ACLU pointed out that the burden of the closures would fall disproportionately on Native Americans, who have less access to cars and gas money than their white counterparts in Todd and Charles Mix counties and who would therefore have less access to the identification required to vote in person or by absentee ballot in South Dakota.

It is unclear whether the Department of Justice did, in fact, intervene on behalf of Indian voters, but the episode demonstrates the continuing need for the Voting Rights Act — and particularly the preclearance provisions of Section 5 — in South Dakota. The Supreme Court upheld Section 5 last June, but some on the court have questioned its continuing relevance.

South Dakota received relatively little attention in the congressional debates over Section 5, but it has been ground zero for voting discrimination in recent years. Since 1999, the ACLU has brought eight lawsuits in federal court on behalf of Native American voters in South Dakota. To date, seven of these cases have been resolved in favor of the Native American plaintiffs, and one case remains pending.

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