ACLU Charges South Dakota County Blocking Native Americans from Holding Public Office

January 27, 2005 12:00 am

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CHARLES MIX COUNTY, SD–The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit charging the Charles Mix County Commission with violating Native American voting rights by using election districts that are unequal in population and divide the Native American community.

“This is a blatant violation of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the case. “We warned the county commissioners more than three years ago that their districts unconstitutionally divided the Native American community, but they chose to leave the unlawful boundaries intact.”

The ACLU lawsuit, filed on behalf of four members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, seeks a court order that dissolves the existing district lines, creates new, nondiscriminatory districts, and calls for a special election.

In its complaint, the ACLU states that the “one person, one vote” principle of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires state and local governments to draw equally populated voting districts every 10 years after the decennial census.

According to federal law, total deviations of population equality greater than 10 percent violate the Constitution. The total deviation of the existing districts in Charles Mix County is 19 percent, almost twice the legal limit. Despite these facts, the Charles Mix County Commission reviewed their districts in 2002 but decided against making any changes.

“It is incomprehensible that the county commission met just last year to review the existing district lines and determined that no changes were needed,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “The question then becomes, is this an intentional effort to keep Native Americans off the county commission?”

Located in south-central South Dakota, rural Charles Mix County is governed by a three-member county commission, each of whom is elected by the voters in a single-member district. In recent years, the commission has clashed with tribal members on such issues as hunting and fishing rights, taxes, law enforcement and access to tribal land.

Although Native Americans constitute almost one-third of the county population, lead plaintiff and tribal elder Evelyn Blackmoon said that she cannot recall any Native Americans ever serving on the county commission.

“We have been without a voice on the commission for too long,” Blackmoon said. “This is an effort to change that.”

The case, Blackmoon v. Charles Mix County, is one of seven lawsuits brought in federal court since 1999 by the ACLU on behalf of Native American voters in South Dakota. To date, five of these cases have been resolved in favor of the Native American plaintiffs and one remains pending (Cottier v. City of Martin, SD). The most recent case, Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine, struck down the state’s 2001 legislative redistricting plan in a landmark 144-page ruling.

To read the complaint filed in this case, go to: /node/35090.

For more information on the Bone Shirt ruling, go to: /node/22319.

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