The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires state public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices to provide voter registration services when people apply for services, renew eligibility, or provide change-of-address information. In September 2020, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), along with a voting rights group, represented by Demos, filed a federal court complaint against South Dakota officials for failing to offer voter registration services through state agencies serving the public, as mandated by the NVRA.
July 8, 2021: Amended Complaint
On July 8, 2021, NARF and Demos filed a proposed amended complaint to include the Lakota People’s Law Project—an organization working to protect the sovereignty and self-determination of Native peoples—and individuals Hoksila White Mountain and Kimberly Dillon as plaintiffs. Dillion, a resident of Rapid City and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, completed a voter registration application at a social services department office in 2019, yet she was not allowed to vote in 2020 because she was told she was not on the list of registered voters.
Poll workers had to turn her away because her voter registration had not been processed. “I was denied the opportunity to cast a vote in the 2020 presidential election because the state didn’t process my voter registration,” said Dillon. “How many other people faced this violation of our basic freedom to vote? We cannot allow voter suppression to continue in South Dakota or anywhere in Native America.”
In the 10 months since the original filing, South Dakota agencies took no action to correct the issue and refused to engage in discussions with the plaintiffs on how to remedy the ongoing issue. Many of the places where the state is supposed to provide voter registration services would give low-income people the chance to have a voice in democratic processes.
“We have long had the sense that South Dakota lacks the desire and motivation to increase our access to the polls,” said President Bordeaux. “If we successfully register to vote and the state processes our registration, our reservation and some of our communities still lack polling places. The state is aware that many of our people lack the transportation and means to travel to faraway polls, yet they do nothing. The state’s inactions to address registration and polling barriers minimize the impact our votes could have, and we cannot let them get away with it.”
Many of the places where the NVRA requires the state to provide voter registration services would give low-income people the chance to have a voice in democratic processes. “If you stop and ask yourself, how many people have had to seek some form of state assistance due to COVID-19 over the past year and a half, you begin to get a picture of how dire it is to hold the state accountable to upholding the National Voter Registration Act,” said NARF Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty.
Eligible Native voters have to overcome a great number of obstacles to complete their voter registration. “Legislation like the NVRA aims to remove some of those barriers and the state of South Dakota must comply. The state of South Dakota has no right to silence Native voters by taking away opportunities to register or failing to process their completed voter registrations,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León. “Add South Dakota’s failure to follow existing national laws to the growing list of reasons why Americans are demanding new federal legislation to protect voters from discrimination at the state and local level.”
September 16, 2020
On September 16, 2020, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and voting rights group Four Directions filed a federal court complaint against South Dakota officials for failing to offer voter registration services through state agencies serving the public, as mandated by the NVRA of 1995. The act requires states to provide citizens with voter registration opportunities at departments of motor vehicles and state agencies that distribute state support such as Medicaid, food vouchers, or cash assistance. The complaint documents a steep drop in voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in recent years, and other clear evidence of non-compliance with the NVRA. In 2004, South Dakota provided voter registration services at these public venues for 7,000 citizens. By 2016, that number had dropped to just 1,100 registrations in spite of increases in the number of people accessing state assistance.
“We documented Native American residents routinely being underserved by the state of South Dakota when it came to voter registration. Native Americans are not being offered the voter registration opportunities they are entitled to under law. We told the state that there was a problem, but they did not fix it. Apparently they did not see the disenfranchisement of Native voters and the silencing of Native voices as an important issue. We do,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León.
NARF Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth agreed. “Voter registration has been going down in South Dakota and it’s no accident—violating the NVRA is a major cause. This is what voter suppression looks like.” said Landreth.
Brenda Wright, Senior Advisor for Legal Strategies at Demos, said, “The right to vote has never been more important, and access to voter registration is key to exercising that right. Especially during a pandemic, when voter registration drives are on hold, state agencies need to honor their obligations under the NVRA to make voter registration convenient and accessible in everyday transactions with the public. This lawsuit is necessary to ensure that South Dakotans can have their voices heard.”
May 20, 2020
On May 20, 2020, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Four Directions, a non-profit group that works to encourage civic participation in Indian Country, notified South Dakota officials of serious and ongoing violations of federal requirements for providing voter registration opportunities through public assistance agencies and departments of motor vehicles. The notice letter, directed to the Secretary of State as the state’s chief elections official, asks state officials to respond within 20 days to avoid the need for federal court litigation. In this matter, the Tribes are represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Four Directions is represented by Demos.
Under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), state public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices are required to provide voter registration services when people are applying for services, renewing their eligibility, and providing change-of-address information. The notice letter documents a steep drop in voter registration applications from public assistance agencies in recent years, and other clear evidence of non-compliance with the NVRA.
“When you go to a state office, such as to get your driver’s license or to apply for public assistance, you are supposed to be able to register to vote at the same time. The state is supposed to facilitate voter registration, but that is not what is happening in South Dakota. Reservation residents in particular are not being given this opportunity, and it is driving down voter participation,” said NARF Staff Attorney Natalie Landreth.
Brenda Wright, Senior Advisor for Legal Strategies at Demos, representing Four Directions, stated: “Access to voter registration through government agencies is more important now than ever, given the difficulties of conducting traditional door-to-door registration drives. Demos has worked in many states to improve agency-based voter registration, and we hope that South Dakota officials will also work with us to ensure that South Dakotans can participate fully in the upcoming elections.”
The violations described in the letter include:
- Failure to provide voter registration applications to persons during all public benefits transactions required by the NVRA
- Failure to update applicants’ voter registration address when they report a change of address to public benefits agencies
- Failure to provide voter registration services to persons who lack either a social security number or driver’s license
Under the NVRA, the Native American groups named in the notice letter may initiate litigation in federal court as soon as 20 days after the notice letter, if state officials do not remedy the violations during that time frame. The notice letter urged the state officials to indicate whether they would engage in compliance discussions before the expiration of the 20-day period.