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ACLU files another suit in South Dakota

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LAKE ANDES, S.D. - A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union's
voting rights division accused Charles Mix County of diluting the votes of
the American Indian population, a frequently heard accusation in a state
that has seen its share of voting rights lawsuits.

District lines are drawn north and south in a county that is shaped as a
near-rectangle, diluteing the American Indian vote, the ACLU claims.

The southern portion of the county is occupied by the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

The plaintiffs claim that the county violates the "one person, one vote"
rule of the constitution and dilutes American Indian voter strength, a
violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This is the seventh lawsuit filed in or against the state relating to
voting rights, with six rulings favorable to the plaintiffs and one case
pending. That lawsuit is against the city of Martin, a border town accused
of diluting precincts against the American Indian population.

"This is a blatant violation of the 'one person, one vote' principle," said
Bryan Sells, attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights project.

The complaint states than under the current district boundaries, American
Indians in the county have less opportunity to participate in the process
than other members of the electorate.

The complaint filed in federal court claims the 14th Constitutional
Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been

"It is incomprehensible that the county commission met just last year to
review the existing district lines and determined that no changes were
needed," said Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas.

"The question then becomes, is this an intentional effort to keep Native
Americans off the county commission?"

The commission was to meet on Feb. 1 to decide on a course of action. Ken
Cotton, attorney for the commission, said the commission was just served
with the complaint that day and were not prepared to make any decisions.

"We are just analyzing the complaint and the statistics, verifying the
Census data to see if it is accurate. Once there is a full understanding,
the commission will make a response and then we will go forward," Cotton

The requirement is that equal districts be drawn every 10 years. The three
commissioners that represent the county chose not to redraw any districts
after the 2000 Census results became available.

The Constitution states that a deviation of more than 10 percent in any
district is out of compliance. Doing the math, the ACLU determined that
Charles Mix County has a 19 percent deviation in population of the
districts and therefore must redraw the district lines.

"Charles Mix County has used voting practices or procedures that enhance
the opportunity for discrimination against Native Americans.

"Native Americans have been effectively denied access to the candidate
slating process, formal or informal, that have existed in Charles Mix
County," the complaint stated.

"Despite these facts, the Charles Mix County Commission reviewed their
districts in 2002 but decided against making any changes."

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County commissioners and the county auditor, Norman Cihak, all named in the
complaint as defendants, assert that the district lines were kept the same
in good faith, not an act of racism. Cihak said there was a public hearing
held on the issue.

But Charon Asetoya, director of the Women's Health Education Resource
Center in Lake Andes, the county seat, said that if the public meeting was
made public, the American Indian population had no knowledge of it.

"We didn't know the meeting was announced. A meeting like that would
usually bring in an audience," she said.

"This is about participation in the political process, about equalizing the
political field," Asetoya said.

Cihak said the commission went over the Census data and chose to leave the
districts the same as in the past. He emphasized that it was easier to draw
straight lines up and down the county than to make jagged lines that could
split one community into two districts. He said the ACLU plan was
impractical because of the jagged lines.

The ACLU sent a letter to the commission in 2001 informing them they were
out of compliance with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Two
commissioners, elected after the 2000 census, said they were not aware of
any discrepancy. It is not clear if they read the ACLU letter.

The ACLU-proposed districts would create a district containing a majority
population of American Indians and give them a chance to elect a preferred
candidate, which has never happened.

American Indians in Charles Mix County make up 23 percent of the voting age
population, according to the 2000 Census. There is a gradual trend of
decreasing non-Indian population and an increase in the American Indian
population in the county. As of Sept. 30, 2004, estimates indicate the
population is now 30 percent American Indian.

There is a sufficient population of American Indians in a specific location
that could make up a majority in one district, the complaint said. The
complaint further noted that American Indians in the county vote as a bloc.

Non-Indians also vote as a bloc. Asetoya said when the American Indian
community ran a candidate for school board and city council, the public
took notice and a huge number of voters came out.

A plaintiff in the case, Sharon Drapeau of Lake Andes, was an unsuccessful
candidate for county commissioner this past election cycle. She insists the
American Indian population in the county will never have representation
until the district lines are fairly drawn.

The plaintiffs have asked the court for injunctive relief that would
prohibit any further use of the districts as they are drawn and that a
special election be held when district lines are changed in accordance with
federal and state law.

According to the complaint, the county commission knew of the disparity,
knew what the total deviation was and was made aware prior to its February
2002 meeting that the southern portion of the county contained a
concentrated population of American Indians and that the present district
boundaries split that population.

"It is time something happened. This is about participation in the
political process, about equalizing the political field.

"About what the United States is supposed to be founded on, and that is
democracy. So it's an exercise in ensuring democracy. There is nothing to
fight, nothing to be afraid of: it's something that needs to be done to
preserve and equal the playing field," Asetoya said.

Divisiveness and racism in the county and Lake Andes have been topics of
criticism and much agitation in the community on a number of occasions. The
"them versus us" mentality pervades, people argue. There is also a
pervasive belief that since the Yankton tribal members have the Yankton
Sioux Tribal government, the city and county are not necessarily for that
segment of the population.

"We are citizens of the United States, of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and are
residents of the state, and that grants us fundamental rights - the right
to vote and run for office.

"It is racism, and people need to think about that long and hard," Asetoya