Native Voters in South Dakota Demand Access to Electoral Rights


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On Tuesday, July 26, the South Dakota District Court in Pierre determine if Lower Brule Sioux tribe voters will have the ability to vote for local elected officials that reflect their concerns in November. The preliminary injunction hearing begins at 10 a.m. central.

Delayed redistricting plan in Lyman County suppresses Native American voters

On May 18, 2022, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and individual voters filed a lawsuit against the Lyman County Board of Commissioners for delaying the rollout of fair election districts. “Through this lawsuit we’re insisting Lyman County hold elections with a fairly drawn map in 2022,” said plaintiff, voter, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Vice Chairman Neil Russell.

County commissioners adopted a plan to use non-Voting Rights Act compliant district maps for two additional at-large election cycles before making changes. “Civic duties start at the ballot box,” said Tara Ford, senior counsel at the public interest law firm Public Counsel. “The voters of the Lower Brule Tribe have a right to be heard, to choose the officials whose decisions will impact their communities. It is a precious duty that every voter is owed and we will fight to protect it.”

Photo of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Reservation courtesy of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

While over 40% of Lyman County voters live on the Lower Brule Reservation, an unfair at-large voting system ensured reservation voters could never elect a single candidate of their choice to the Board of Commissioners. The county commissioners have historically had little relationship with Lower Brule and community members’ needs, not even managing to maintain a road that crosses into the reservation it’s obligated to keep functional.

“This issue needs to be addressed now: Lyman County needs to comply with the Voting Rights Act sooner rather than later, so candidates we elect in 2022 can begin working alongside the other elected Commissioners,” said plaintiff, voter, and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Tribal Councilwoman Stephanie Bolman. “Each and every day people who do not represent us make decisions that affect my community. Their decisions over the past three decades have created great disparities across various systems, which continue to have devastating effects on people I care about.”

The 2020 Census data showed that overall, the county’s white population decreased in the last decade, while the Native American population increased by over 21%. In the 2020 redistricting process, voters on the Lower Brule Reservation and the Tribe pointed out that to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Lyman County had to change its at-large system and allow Lower Brule Reservation voters the opportunity to elect two out of five commissioners. Instead, the Board of Commissioners sought special legislation through a secretive process with limited ability for opponents to register their concerns, and then announced that it would delay implementing the new district map until 2026.

“I have lived on the Lower Brule reservation all my life. We have a growing community and like all communities, we have issues to resolve and things to fix. I vote, and I hope in 2022 to vote for a person who knows my community and applies the beliefs of our people to problem-solving and thinking about what needs to change,” said plaintiff and reservation voter Ben Janis.

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and three enrolled members filed the lawsuit to prevent Lyman County from continuing to violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act until 2026. “Like every other county already using new election district maps adopted after the 2020 Census in 2022, Lyman County must comply with the Voting Rights Act and implement the revised district map immediately,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty. “Lyman County cannot continue to disenfranchise voters who live on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation until 2026.”

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and individual voters are represented by the Native American Rights Fund, Public Counsel, the Law Office of Bryan Sells, the Law Office of Randy Seiler, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

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