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Few tribal members appear for redistricting meeting

MISSION, S.D. - A plan to change district lines for some voters in South Dakota counties drew little interest among tribal members on two of the state's reservations despite local media running articles informing people of the two meetings.

The state's redistricting committee, which is looking at a pivotal change for tribal voters who participate in the state's elections, held meetings June 24 in Mission, Pine Ridge and Martin to sample tribal members' preferences on where redistricting lines should be drawn.

However, no tribal members showed up at the Sinte Gleska University Multipurpose Center to talk about the potential changes and only two showed up at a similar gathering at the Wolf Creek School near Pine Ridge.

While most residents of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations appear satisfied with their current legislative districts, Legislature most likely will change boundaries. Lawmakers nationwide must redraw legislative districts every 10 years because of population changes revealed by U.S. Census Bureau. The entire South Dakota Legislature will meet in special session Oct. 23-25 to set the new district boundaries.

The new census figures may be flawed because of an inaccurate count, say some tribal member-legislators. Thus proposed changes in voting districts where tribal members reside may create a disparity in representation, they said.

The state will use population data along with geographic boundaries in drawing lines for new districts, but will have to consider equal access for tribal members as part of the redefining of the districts.

Only two tribal members commented at the hearings. District 27 lawmakers said that low turnout indicated American Indians feel a stronger tie to tribal governments than to state government.

Sen. Richard Hagen of Pine Ridge said he believed the reason for the poor turnout at two meetings was because tribal members had confidence in their legislators and few ties to state government.

"I guess that's the trust they put in us, and we're very proud of that trust," Sen. Hagen told the committee.

Still, Committee Co-Chairman Arnold Brown, who also sits on the state tribal relations committee, said it was a disappointing turnout and noted state legislators' efforts to reach out to tribal communities.

"I'm here to represent not just Indian people, but all people," Hagen said. "Our Indian people do need good representation. With about 80 percent unemployment, we were the number one poorest county in the United States. We moved up one. The Indian issues we deal with are very, very important.

"I like the boundary lines the way they are."

Some legislators are concerned splitting counties where large reservation populations reside and where there have been traditional boundaries tied geographic boundaries may result in confusion over polling places, lower voter turnout and fewer opportunities for representation at the state level.

The redistricting committee, composed of 15 members of the Legislature, toured the reservations seeing firsthand the large geographic regions with sparse populations.

If lawmakers retain the District 27 boundaries, which includes Shannon and Todd counties connected by a strip of sparsely populated land in Bennett County, a strong threat of litigation looms, said legislative policy analyst Reuben Bezpaletz.

"A lot of people want to keep the current district, but it is clearly packed and to a certain extent gerrymandered."

Gerrymandering is a political maneuver to create a legislative district favoring a group, but adjusting the districts could give way to gerrymandering if minority, specifically tribal members residing in the state, are underrepresented.

"The ground rules have changed since 1991. We are now operating under much more nebulous case law."

Districts could be "packed," meaning grouping minorities into a few districts so their influence won't be as strong in the remaining districts, essentially breaking up a potential voting bloc of Native Americans.

American Indians make up 8 percent of South Dakota's population. Five of the state's 105 legislators are American Indian.

Recent federal court rulings do not favor packing, but those rulings involved African Americans or Latinos and might not apply to American Indians, Bezpaletz said.

With limited case law specific to American Indians, committee members will have to try to apply the other minority voting-rights court rulings to redistricting here.

The general guidelines have shifted from the idea that about 65 percent of the voters in minority districts should be members of the racial minority in question. Census statistics show District 27 is 89 percent Lakota.

"Their thinking was that minorities were underrepresented for too long and you should do everything you can appropriately do to encourage election of minorities through the redistricting process. The Supreme Court has had second thoughts about that," Bezpaletz said.

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The more recent view favors creation of more districts where racial minorities might not be a majority of the population but are such a large voting bloc that any candidate seeking election would have to win most of their votes, he explained.

Evolving federal case law on minority voting rights is likely to convince state lawmakers that districts established in 1991 are not legal now.

Bezpaletz cautioned that some proposed changes could result in court challenges.

"Certain maps expose you to greater litigation than others," he said.

Bezpaletz cited several court cases where changes were made in the federal voters' rights law for dealing with the representation of minorities.

While redrawing boundaries may expose the state to potential legal challenges, Bezpaletz said current maps can be defended in court, but some are more prone to bring about lawsuits.

"Every one of them has advantages and disadvantages. Everyone litigatible and every one of them is defendable."

Tribal official Bernadine Blue Bird said the Oglala Sioux Tribe has appealed the census count saying Shannon County was grossly undercounted.

Instead of the 12,466 residents who were counted, Blue Bird said tribal officials believe the true number is closer to 38,000. The federal Indian Health Service in Pine Ridge shows about 25,000 active case files, she said.

If the tribe's appeal is successful, that would change South Dakota's legislative districts, Rep. Mike Derby of Rapid City said.

Based on the 2000 Census, the state's ideal legislative district would have 21,567 people. If it has more people, Shannon County would be part of more than one legislative district.

Former Oglala Sioux Tribal Councilman Gerald Big Crow, who served in tribal government for 31 years, told the committee it should spend several days on the reservation to have a thorough discussion of legislative districts, treaty rights, economic disparities and cultural differences.

Big Crow said he was opposed to the change in the boundaries.

"We're the largest county on that map there. I don't know why we can't have more delegation going to the state. I don't know why we can't put Jackson County back with Shannon County. That was rigged," said Big Crow who opposed changes in the district in 1991.

Rep. Paul Valandra of Mission presented the committee with documentation from the American Civil Liberties Union detailing the history of discrimination against American Indians including a racial bloc voting analysis.

"I wanted to bring attention to this to avoid violating Section Two of the Voting Rights Act," Valandra said.

Local testimony suggested to legislators that districts remain as they are, Sen. Don Brosz of Watertown said.

Bradford told the group there is a much higher turnout during tribal elections than state elections in part because of confusion at the polls and lack of uniformity for joint voter registration between the two types of government.

Rep. Matthew Michaels of Yankton suggested coordination of voting and polling sites among the tribes with the county auditors.

That suggestion met with a chilly reception from Rep. Gordon Pederson of Wall who said it would be impossible for the state to certify tribal voters in state elections. While county officials register voters, not all voters should be eligible.

Such was the case when former 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern registered to vote in Davison County a few years ago and used the address of Dakota Wesleyan University as his home address. He would have been eligible to vote in the state's election if it hadn't been challenged by the media.

"If that is the case we should do some type of a joint registration. I think a lot of people show up at the polls and don't realize they have to register to vote in both elections," said Bradford.

"Not every Native American that lives on the reservation can vote in tribal election. I don't know how we tie all those things together," said Pederson.

Larry Lucas, a Todd County teacher and coach and former legislator, told the group in Mission that most tribal residents don't vote until they reach the age of 25 and many of the voters don't feel ties to state government even though the interaction between state and tribal governments impact their lives. Lucas said greater emphasis should be placed on voter registration and education to assist tribal members in accessing the system.