Following ACLU Lawsuit on Behalf of Native Americans, SD Officials Agree to Fair School Board Elections

March 18, 2003 12:00 am

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RAPID CITY, SD – The American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project today announced a court-approved settlement of a lawsuit with a school district whose “at-large” system for school board elections discriminated against members of the Native American community.

The settlement resolves the lawsuit, Julie R. Weddell, et al. v. Wagner Community School District 11-4, filed last March on behalf of three members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe against the Wagner Community School District and its seven-member board.

“This settlement means that for the first time, Native American voters will be given a real and equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to the Wagner Community School Board,” said Bryan Sells, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and lead counsel in the lawsuit.

Although Native Americans make up more than 40 percent of the school district’s population, only one has ever been elected to the school board. According to the ACLU’s complaint, the school board’s “at-large” system of elections afforded Native American voters less opportunity than other members of the community to elect candidates of their choice.

According to the settlement, also known as a “consent decree,” the school board has agreed to:

  • Replace its “at-large,” winner-take-all system with a cumulative voting system that would enable voters to distribute their votes to their favorite candidate or candidates in any combination. If, for example, there are three seats available, voters can give all three votes to one candidate or distribute their votes however they see fit. The three candidates with the most votes win.
  • Move the school district’s sole polling place to a more neutral and accessible location.
  • Post election notices in places more likely to be seen by all members of the community, including Native Americans.

“For the Native American community, a real vote on the school board means a chance to change the way their children are treated at school,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “It gives them a chance to change the high school graduation rate and ultimately a chance to produce the doctors, lawyers, and engineers they need to fulfill the promise of the Seventh Generation,”she added, referring to the words of Black Elk, a Native American leader who said it would take seven generations for the people to heal from the devastating effects of European westward expansion.

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