Two major organizations—the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and the American Civil Liberties Union—have supported a federal civil-rights complaint filed by voting-advocacy group Four Directions on behalf of three South Dakota tribes. The grievance arose when South Dakota’s secretary of state and top elections official, Jason Gant, refused to dip into South Dakota’s Help America Vote Act reserve to pay for satellite early-voting stations on the Crow Creek, Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations. The polling places would give on-reservation voters the same number of days to vote as those living off reservations.
On September 6, GPTCA, representing 16 tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, voted to endorse the Four Directions complaint and asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate. The association’s resolution called enfranchisement “vital” to tribal interests and voting opportunities “vastly unequal” on the reservations in question.
Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and Andrew Knecht, of ACLU South Dakota, have also written to Holder. On September 9, they urged him to advise South Dakota to provide the polling places, saying that, “[The state’s] failure to do so would likely violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.”
The ACLU letter details ongoing and past limitations South Dakota has imposed on Native voters and the state’s vigorous efforts to preserve the barriers. According to McDonald and Knecht, this has meant political isolation for Native people, along with poverty and its effects, including severely shortened life expectancy and a startlingly high infant mortality rate.
“As I went through the letter’s listing of Native voting-rights cases South Dakota has fought, it struck me that we should be beyond that,” said Rosebud Sioux civil-rights leader OJ Semans, who co-heads Four Directions with Barb Semans. “We’re working at changing public opinion through dialogue, and our message is getting through. The state’s biggest newspapers, Republicans, Democrats and now these two important organizations are supporting our efforts.”
Still, the ACLU letter looks like the rough draft of a lawsuit, agreed Semans, and litigation or the prospect of it can be effective. Heather Smith, ACLU South Dakota communications director, noted, “It was only when faced with lengthy and costly litigation in 2012 that Gant released HAVA funds for early voting in the Shannon County portion of Pine Ridge.” (The latest request calls for an office in the Jackson County segment of Pine Ridge.)
Some South Dakota leaders fear what they perceive as “unleashing” the Native vote, said Richard Casey, Sioux Falls attorney and member of the South Dakota Board of Elections. As a result, he said, the solution to the early-voting question may have to come from out of state: “This may take the involvement of the Department of Justice. At the end of the day, this is about voting equality, a fundamental principle of our democracy, and we are failing that test.”
This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.