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ACLU closely watching South Dakota redistricting

PIERRE, S.D. ? Dissolving a voting district as ordered by the South Dakota Supreme Court more than a year ago could undo years of work by tribal election officials who have encouraged tribal voters to participate in state and federal elections.

The state's redistricting committee is considering several maps that involve grouping Corson County with counties east of the Missouri River. If that happens, District 28A would lose a few thousand Lakota voters, assuming the special district remains at all.

State Rep. Tom Van Norman, D-Eagle Butte, echoed his plea to colleagues in late September to keep his unique district, District 28A, a single-member House of Representatives district carved out to favor Lakota voters.

Van Norman, the first Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member elected to a state seat, met opposition from some committee members openly hostile about keeping the court ordered into existence in July 2000.

'There is a community of interest, socially, culturally, and politically, in the current structure of District 28A. There is a lot of commonality among the people living within the current district,' Van Norman told the redistricting committee during a Sept. 28 meeting.

Rep. Mike Derby, R-Rapid City, has said that federal court rulings lead state lawmakers to believe that single-member House districts aren't allowed. Furthermore Derby said, federal courts have ruled that race can't be a primary consideration when drawing districts despite the requirements under the 1965 Voting Rights Act which demands that minority voting rights be protected.

South Dakota is one of 16 states whose political districts are subject to federal review because of a history of discrimination against minorities. The Justice Department must approve any districts that include Shannon and Todd counties, which contain the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations. Tribal members represent nearly 8 percent of the state's population and are its largest racial minority.

Although Van Norman's District 28A isn't specifically subject to federal approval, it could be considered. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project will review South Dakota's new districts when they are drawn.

Voters in each of the state's 35 legislative districts elect two representatives and one senator. The exception is District 28, where the state Supreme Court ruled that the American Indians who live there deserve their own House member.

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Brenda Blue Arm told the committee that taking away District 28A would ruin years worth of work to get Lakota people politically active.

'We like to see someone who's Lakota to be sitting, representing us. That gives us a lot of pride,' Blue Arm said.

'It's been a long, hard pull to even get our people interested in voting. We're in transition. We're slowly moving forward. This district needs to stand, if for nothing else than for equal opportunity which I believe is part of the language of the government of this country,' said Madonna Thunder Hawk.

Meanwhile, as the final decisions are made about how the districts will look for the next 10 years, American Civil Liberties Union representatives said they are watching to see if the new plan will protect the voting rights of American Indians.

'It would be unfortunate for all the people of South Dakota if the Legislature were to disregard its responsibilities under the Voting Rights Act,' said Bryan Sells, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

However, lawmakers on the 15-member redistricting committee repeatedly have said they don't plan to keep the special 28A House of Representative district on the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Indian reservations in north-central South Dakota.

The redistricting issue created a paradox for lawmakers because while the federal law demands the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities must be protected, the courts ruled in the last decade that race cannot be a primary factor when drawing a given district. Either way, state legislators say they will be sued even if District 28A remains and those with significant tribal populations are left intact.

Derby, co-chairman of the redistricting committee, said lawmakers believe ever-evolving federal law would prohibit drawing a district specifically to benefit a certain race.

The committee will meet again Oct. 9. A formal recommendation will go to the state Legislature during a special session from Oct. 23-25, to approve the new districts. Every state is drawing new districts due to changes in the population under the 2000 Census.