South Dakota Systematically Failed to Provide Mandatory Voter Registration Services
On May 26, 2022, a federal judge in South Dakota ruled that the state has committed numerous violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), commonly known as the “Motor-Voter” law. The NVRA requires driver’s license offices and public assistance agencies to provide voter registration services to their clients. In his decision in Rosebud Sioux Tribe v. Barnett, a case brought by two South Dakota tribes and Native voters, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol ruled that the state had not fully complied with the NVRA’s mandate “to establish procedures that will increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote.”
The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux tribal member Kimberly Dillon, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Hoksila White Mountain, and the Lakota People’s Law Project, sued Secretary of State Steve Barnett and three agency heads after an investigation uncovered rampant noncompliance with the NVRA across the state, particularly in Native communities.
The plaintiffs alleged that many South Dakota voters—and disproportionately the nine percent of the population who are Native—have faced impossible hurdles when attempting to register to vote through driver’s license offices (DMV) or state-run public assistance offices. In its Thursday order granting summary judgment to plaintiffs on most of their claims, the court agreed.
“A huge win for all of South Dakota, this decision is one victory amongst a long history of denying and suppressing Natives’ right to vote in South Dakota and beyond. This is a first step in eliminating years of South Dakota’s willful neglect in complying with the NVRA. We hope that this increases the number of eligible citizens who are able to register to vote in South Dakota. It is crucial that we continue to fight to eliminate all obstacles to the Native vote,” said NARF Staff Attorney Samantha Kelty.
“The court found that the state’s forms, services, and training were all inadequate to provide the minimum voter registration services required by law. In effect, by not offering these basic services, South Dakota has disenfranchised Native communities. This pattern not only breaks the law, but it goes against our American democratic ideals,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León.
“Voter registration is the gateway to full participation in our democracy. This ruling will ensure that South Dakotans will finally have access to convenient voter registration through state agencies, in fulfillment of the long-standing guarantees of the National Voter Registration Act,” said Brenda Wright, Senior Advisor for Legal Strategies at Demos.
Plaintiffs are represented by the Native American Rights Fund, Demos, and the civil rights law firm Wardenski P.C., which is serving as outside counsel to Demos in the case, as well as Terry Pechota of the Pechota Law Office in Rapid City.
Read more about: Rosebud Sioux Tribe et al v. Barnett et al