South Dakota Voter Registration

Attorney: Natalie A. Landreth, Jacqueline De León

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 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.

Photo of South Dakota capitol building

South Dakota capitol building

September 16, 2020

Today, 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 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Under the NVRA, state public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices are required to provide voter registration services when people apply for services, renew their eligibility, or provide change-of-address information. 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 this matter, the Tribes are represented by the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Four Directions is represented by Demos.

NARF Staff AttorneyJacqueline De León commented, “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.”

“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 NARF Staff Attorney Natalie 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.”

O.J. Semans, Jr., speaking on behalf of Four Directions, stated, “My wife Barb and I are deeply concerned that Native Americans are losing the opportunity to register through South Dakota’s public assistance agencies and when getting a driver’s license. We’ve worked with the former Secretary of State, the Help America Vote Act task force and the election board in the past on developing formulas to create satellite offices on Indian Reservations. It is our hope that the state of South Dakota will once again work with us to ensure full participation in the 2020 Elections and beyond.”

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 urges the state officials to indicate whether they are willing to engage in compliance discussions before the 20-day period expires.