Department of Justice Objects To South Dakota’s Discriminatory Redistricting Law

February 12, 2008 12:00 am

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ACLU Says Move Protects Native American Voting Strength

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LAKE ANDES, SD – The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Department of Justice today for enforcing the Voting Rights Act by objecting to a discriminatory South Dakota redistricting ordinance. The law would have increased the size of the Charles Mix County Commission from three to five members – reducing the voting strength of Native Americans. The Justice Department’s objection prevents the county from implementing the change, which was scheduled to go into effect today.

“We strongly approve the Justice Department’s decision to object to this transparent attempt to dilute the voting power of Native Americans,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “It’s further proof that voting discrimination still exists in our country and a stark reminder of the continuing need for civil rights enforcement by the executive branch.”

A letter written on behalf of Attorney General Michael Mukasey concluded that the county failed to meet its burden of showing that the proposed change did not have a discriminatory purpose. The letter also noted that county commissioners had made comments that demonstrate a racially discriminatory intent in designing the law. It stated: “the voting changes appear to have a greater impact on Native Americans because, under the proposed plan, Native American voters can elect their candidate of choice in only one of five districts, as opposed to one in three in districts under the current plan…In addition, Charles Mix County and the State of South Dakota have a history of voting discrimination against Native Americans.”

The Justice Department’s decision concerned Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. Jurisdictions subject to this provision must obtain federal approval, known as “preclearance,” before implementing any changes to their election laws. If the attorney general objects, the change becomes unenforceable. Charles Mix County submitted its redistricting ordinance for preclearance in December 2007.

Charles Mix County became subject to this provision of the Voting Rights Act as a result of a recent settlement with members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. The settlement resolved 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 Constitution. Under the settlement, approved last December by U.S. District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol of Sioux Falls, the county agreed to comply with the provision through 2024.

Today’s objection means that the county’s voters will continue to elect three commissioners under a court-ordered redistricting plan implemented as a result of the ACLU’s lawsuit. One of the current county commissioners is a tribal member.

“Thankfully, the Justice Department saw the value of upholding Native Americans’ voting rights in Charles Mix County,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “This is a great victory that clears the way for equal participation of all voters in their county government.”

Since 1999, the ACLU has brought seven lawsuits in federal court 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.

A copy of the Justice Department’s objection letter is available at:

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

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