ACLU Wins Historic Agreement in South Dakota Voting Rights Case

December 4, 2007 12:00 am

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County Agrees to Federal Supervision of Elections After Charges of Discrimination Against Native Americans

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LAKE ANDES, SD – In a historic agreement reached today with the American Civil Liberties Union, a South Dakota county has agreed to federal supervision of its elections through 2024. The settlement resolves a 2005 ACLU lawsuit charging Charles Mix County with discriminating against Native American voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

“This is a landmark settlement,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and the lead attorney on the case. “It will protect Native American voting rights in Charles Mix County for many years to come.”

Under the settlement, approved today by U.S. District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol of Sioux Falls, the county is required to get approval from the federal government before implementing new voting laws in the county through 2024. The settlement also authorizes federal election observers to monitor county elections through 2014 and requires the county to pay $110,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

Today’s agreement stems from a dispute over the districts used in elections for county commissioners. In November 2001, the ACLU wrote to the county on behalf of the Yankton Sioux Tribe complaining that the county’s districts violated the one-person-one-vote principle of the Fourteenth Amendment and diluted Native American voting strength by splitting the Indian community into two districts. Although state law required the county to redraw districts in February 2002, the county commission voted to leave its then-current districts in place.

After further investigation, the ACLU brought a lawsuit on behalf of four tribal members. Their complaint charged not only that the district boundaries were unlawful but also that the commission’s decision to leave them in place was intentionally discriminatory. Judge Piersol ruled in July 2006 that the districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment but reserved ruling on the plaintiffs’ other claims. Today’s settlement resolves all remaining issues in the case.

“This settlement helps insure that the Native American voters of Charles Mix can fully participate in the political life of their county,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “Furthermore, it is another step forward on the road to full equality and healing of past wounds. That journey is long overdue and hard to undertake but it is possible and – as this case proves – well worth all the effort.”

This is the second settlement reached by the ACLU involving allegations of voting discrimination against Native Americans in Charles Mix County.

In March 2003, the ACLU settled a similar lawsuit against the Wagner Community School District over an election system which allegedly diluted Native American voting strength in elections for the school board. Under that agreement, the school district agreed to use an alternative system that resulted in greater Native American representation.

The case settled today, 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, all seven of these cases have been resolved in favor of the Native American plaintiffs.

Attorneys on this case are Sells of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and cooperating attorney John Keller of Huron, South Dakota.

A copy of today’s settlement is available at:

More information on the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project is available at:

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