The Oglala Sioux Nation and a nonpartisan civil rights group formed at the request of President John Kennedy have filed a voting-rights lawsuit on behalf of voters from the tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “Our civil rights are being violated,” said Tom Poor Bear, Oglala Sioux vice president and lead plaintiff. The federal suit, Poor Bear v. The County of Jackson, cites the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment.
The controversy arose when South Dakota’s Jackson County, which overlaps Pine Ridge, refused to set up a pre-election satellite voting and registration office in the reservation town of Wanblee. Poor Bear, a Wanblee resident, said the county has a long history of discriminating against its Native citizens. They were barred from voting until the 1970s and from holding county office until 1980, according to the complaint.
The Jackson County Commission’s June 2014 minutes show its officials blaming costs for their decision. This is despite the South Dakota Board of Elections writing a Help America Vote Act Plan that funds satellite voting and pre-approved it for Jackson and two other counties that overlap Indian reservations. The Native communities met the plan’s race-neutral eligibility criteria for funding, including relatively greater poverty and longer distances to existing offices.
The HAVA plan was written to make it easier for voters to cast a ballot, notwithstanding their financial circumstances, according to elections board member Linda Lea M. Viken, a Rapid City attorney. She added, “The state’s HAVA Task Force found that Jackson County fulfilled the criteria, and thus they were pre-approved.”
“They’ve got the money, but they won’t open the office,” said Poor Bear. He said he appreciated the support of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which partnered with tribe in filing the suit: “To have a national attorneys’ committee come to Wanblee is wonderful. This is about standing up for voting rights.” He did not appear hopeful that the suit would be resolved before the upcoming midterm elections.
Wanblee residents may not have a nearby ballot box leading up to Election Day, but others in Jackson County do. Starting 46 days before national elections, residents of off-reservation county seat Kadoka, where the voting population is 84 percent white, can find no-excuse absentee voting and registration at the local courthouse. Meanwhile, voters in Wanblee, a larger town with a voting population that’s 92 percent Native, would travel 54 miles round trip to register or cast a ballot at the courthouse. The difficulty of making the trip is worsened by lack of vehicles and gas money in isolated Wanblee and the area’s absence of public transportation, said Poor Bear: “The county allows non-Indians to vote early, while preventing Indians.”
At press time, the Jackson County state’s attorney had not responded to requests for an interview.
According to the Lawyers’ Committee, “Defendants have no legitimate, non-racial reason for refusing to establish the satellite office.”