South Dakota Failing to Offer Voter Registration
Categories: Civil Rights (Voting Rights, Juries, Census)
On July 8, 2021, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe amended their complaint to include additional plaintiffs against the state of South Dakota for failing to provide voter registration services. “With this suit, Native American voters seek to ensure that the American freedom to vote is not restricted by negligent actions of the state of South Dakota,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer.
The amended complaint includes as plaintiffs Hoksila White Mountain, Kimberly Dillon, and Lakota People’s Law Project—an organization working to protect the sovereignty and self-determination of Native peoples. “By failing to provide voter registration as required in the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), the state of South Dakota actively limits the number of citizens who can participate in U.S. elections,” said Native American Rights Fund (NARF) Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty.
NVRA requires state public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices to provide voter registration services to all people who apply for services, renew eligibility, or provide change-of-address information. In spite of the growing numbers of people accessing state services, the number of voter registrations processed by state officials continues to drop.
“Native voters in South Dakota have found it harder and harder to perform the simple act of registering to vote. As the number of registered voters plummets, the state has done nothing to fix this systemic problem,” said Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney M. Bordeaux.
In addition to not offering voter registration services, South Dakota agencies reject an unusually high number of completed applications. 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 September 2020, NARF and Demos filed the original lawsuit against South Dakota for failing to follow NVRA. In the 10 months since the original filing, South Dakota agencies have taken no action to correct the problems and refused to engage in discussions with the plaintiffs on how to remedy the ongoing issue.
“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 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.”
For additional information about NARF’s work to protect Native Americans’ right to vote, visit vote.narf.org.