Federal Court Sides with Native American Voters in South Dakota

December 6, 2006 12:00 am

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PIERRE, SD – The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded a federal district court decision in favor of Native American voters in Martin, South Dakota. The decision, which was released late yesterday, orders city officials to redraw city council district lines to correct violations of the Voting Rights Act that prevented Native Americans from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.

“Yesterday’s decision vindicates the long, hard struggle for Native American voting rights in the City of Martin,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the case. “This ruling will enable Indian voters to enjoy the right that many other South Dakotans take for granted; the right to have a say in their local government. The decision also benefits everyone by promoting fairness and a more democratic city government.”

The ACLU brought the lawsuit in April 2002 on behalf of two Native American voters who say the redistricting plan adopted by the city that year had the purpose and effect of diluting Native American voting strength. Native Americans made up approximately 45 percent of the city’s population but would have been unable to elect any candidates of their choice to the city council because the redistricting plan ensured that white voters controlled all three city council wards.

The ACLU offered three alternative redistricting plans that experts agreed would have given Native Americans an opportunity equal to that of white voters to elect their preferred candidates. The district court initially ruled in the city’s favor in March 2005. The Indian plaintiffs appealed, and on May 5, 2006, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, sending the case back to the district court.

Yesterday’s decision not only ordered a “full and complete remedy” for the plaintiffs, but also affirmed many of the factual claims of voting discrimination that Indian voters had alleged in their original lawsuit, including the fact that the city’s 2002 redistricting plan unlawfully dilutes Native American voting strength. According to the findings of the federal court:

  • “There is a long, elaborate history of discrimination against Indians in South Dakota in matters relating to voting in South Dakota.” (p. 11)

  • “Indians in Martin continue to suffer the effects of past discrimination, including lower levels of income, education, home ownership, automobile ownership, and standard of living.” (p. 15)

  • “Martin city officials have taken intentional steps to thwart Indian voters from exercising political influence.” (p. 16)

  • “[T]here is a persistent and unacceptable level of racially polarized voting in the City of Martin.” (p. 19)

“One of the most remarkable things about this opinion is the court’s finding that a city official intentionally discriminated against Native Americans,” said Sells. “This finding serves as a somber reminder that racial discrimination in the voting process still exists in South Dakota, and we should all be thankful that the Voting Rights Act is here to guard against it.”

Since 1999, the ACLU has brought seven voting rights lawsuits in federal court on behalf of Native American voters in South Dakota. To date, every one of these cases has been resolved in favor of the plaintiffs

Today’s decision is available online at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/minority/27624lgl20061206.html

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