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Federal Judge Finds State Violated Voting Rights of Native Americans
Election Integrity Continues to be an Issue in South Dakota

A Federal Judge ruled on May 26, 2022 that the State of South Dakota has violated the voting rights of ingenious tribes. Judge Lawrence Piersol has now given the South Dakota State legislature forty-five days to fix the issue, and put a remedy plan in place ahead of the 2022 General Election, if not, Piersol has said that he will do it himself.

In 2020 the Rosebud and Ogala tribes brought forward a lawsuit against Secretary of State Steve Barnett. The tribes argue that the Secretary of State has not adequately addressed The National Voter Registration Act, which requires state agencies to help voters register to vote whenever they interact with government agencies for other services such as the DMV, or public assistance.

The National Voter Registration Act requires states to provide training to state agencies in order to assist residents with voter registration and alterations at time of address change. Whether an individual is obtaining a new drivers license, updating their address or applying for public assistance in a new area, the act states that agencies shall update voter registration once notified of residency changes.

However, Judge Piersol argued that the Secretary of State’s Office had not provided adequate information to county auditors and the other state agencies, to properly comply with federal law.

Piersol also ruled that DSS (the Department of Social Services) was not complying with the Act, after learning the agency was not changing voter registration when people notified the department via phone call that they had moved. In fact, Piersol found that multiple state agencies like the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Social Services were failing to properly transmit accurate voter registration to the county auditors, stating the failings were due to improper training from Steve Barnett.

“The court finds the secretary of state, as the chief elections officer responsible for implementation of NVRA, contributed to these failings through inadequate training and oversight, and therefore grants summary judgment to plaintiffs on this issue,” Piersol wrote.

Election integrity issues are not new in South Dakota however. In 2001 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Native American voters, "after the state legislature drew a new legislative district map that packed Native Americans into a single district."



As a result of that redistricting plan, District 27 was created, which encompasses the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations. The ACLU contends that the legislature, by packing the district, created a "supermajority" of 90% Native American voters in one district, which they say diluted the voting power of indigenous peoples. In addition, the ACLU argued that packing the two reservations into one district disenfranchises Indian voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits abridging the right to vote on account of race or ethnicity.

According to Bryan Sells, lead attorney for the ACLU "if the state had drawn districts more fairly, Native Americans would have been a majority in two districts instead of a 90 percent supermajority in only one," Sells said. "The people on those reservations deserve to have at least one more person fighting for them in the legislature."

U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier sided with the ACLU, and wrote in her ruling that the "current legislative plan impermissibly dilutes the Indian vote" and "denies Indians in Districts 26 and 27 an equal opportunity to access the political process."

Ironically, these are some of the exact same arguments being made by Monae Johnson who recently bumped off Steve Barnett during the SDGOP Convention, winning the nomination 61% to 39%. Johnson, whose children are Native American, has been ridiculed by some within her party for her stance on voter equality and election integrity. However, having served eight years under former Secretaries of State, Johnson seems to be ahead of the curve in her understanding of the issues and the ability to take corrective action. After the convention, The Dakota Leader caught up with Johnson and her new campaign team. With a new campaign manager and a complete rebrand, Johnson has expanded her advisory team with experts who say they're actively engaged with understanding and finding solutions to the issues facing South Dakota's election process. It appears that Johnson, and her team, are highly focused on the trans-partisan challenges facing the Secretary of State's Office, and wants to be an effective change agent.

By all accounts, it would seem that simple fixes like; training agencies, auditors and hosting post election audits would remedy many of the concerns expressed by individuals across the political spectrum. However, getting there seems to be a continuous and uphill battle.

A group called SD Canvassing
recently released a media kit, showing voter roll anomalies, and the extent of outdated voter rolls within the state of South Dakota. The group has requested public records from county auditors, which have all been denied.

In response to voter suppression and election irregularities, The South Dakota Freedom Caucus
just released a statement, after nearly a third of the state's legislature signed onto a letter. Lawmakers are now calling upon Gov. Noem and acting Attorney General Mark Vargo to address these time-sensitive issues, ahead of this November's general election.

The issue of who is able to vote, according to the South Dakota state constitution, will ultimately be determined by how the state defines
"domicile" and residency requirements. Indigenous peoples, having been granted nation-states, are considered citizens of that sovereign nation. However, the Native American Voting Act of 1924 establishes that Indigenous peoples are American citizens first, and therefore have the right to vote in federal elections. Like any American who chooses to move to another state, the ability to vote in state elections, is determined by their primary residential address. The creation of state districts and representation, is based upon federal census data, making the process confusing for many. To further compound the issue, South Dakota's local elections are overseen by each county, or school district (for school board seats).

For similar reasons, the issue of knowing how to file voter registration can be difficult, as a streamlined process has not yet been created throughout agencies. According to Judge Piersol, it is imperative that agencies and auditors alike are given the proper training and tools to ensure equal access at the ballot for all South Dakota residents. Going forward, the next Secretary of State will require working knowledge of this process, the challenges, and a solid plan for how to address them.

By visiting the
SD Secretary of State's website, residents of South Dakota can check the status of their voter registration, and ensure that information is accurate ahead of the next election.

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--Mike Zitterich

Post Date: 2022-08-26 08:33:15Last Update: 2022-08-26 11:55:41


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