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Illegal voter districts to stand

PIERRE, S.D. - For the past two years accusations of voter fraud, changes
in voting laws that require photo ID, intimidation tactics and zealous
voter registration practices have led to indictments, convictions and sharp
criticism between the two major parties and some candidates in South
Dakota.

Indian country was at the center of most of the accusations of voter fraud
and American Indians were victims of intimidation tactics to restrict
voting, voter rights advocates said.

Most recently a federal court ruled that South Dakota violated the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 over redistricting. The state was given time to submit a
proposal to the court but a week before the general election said it
doesn't think it did anything wrong when a district, made up mostly of
American Indians on two reservations was illegally packed with a 90 percent
American Indian population.

The legislative executive committee met with state Attorney General Larry
Long and Secretary of State Chris Nelson, and after a one-hour meeting
decided they didn't have the authority to redraw the district boundaries.

U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier ruled that District 27, made up of
mostly Shannon, Todd and the southern portion of Bennett counties,
constituted packing, a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Most of the
Rosebud Reservation and a large portion of the Pine Ridge Reservation are
located in District 27.

State Sen. Ed Olson, R-Mitchell, spokesperson for the committee, said he
understood the state's constitution required that the districts be redrawn
only in the years that follow the census.

Judge Schreier wrote in her opinion that American Indians would have the
opportunity to elect preferred candidates for state offices if the
boundaries were redrawn in Districts 26 and 27. Those two districts
encompass the counties that cover the two reservations or contain portions
of them or border them.

The new lines were drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature following
the 2000 census. The legislature was warned by legal officials about the
possibility of packing the district. The executive committee said that it
did not consider what happened with District 27 illegal or packing.

District 26 has not fielded an American Indian candidate for the state
legislature since 1982. During trial testimony, Elsie Meeks, Oglala, who
lives in District 26 and was a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, said she
could not get elected for state office in her own district.

The legislative committee directed Long to ask Judge Schreier for help and
guidance. They want Judge Schreier to solicit the help of the state Supreme
Court. The legislature asked the state's top court but was turned down.

Olson said the legislature considered the population of Pine Ridge and
Rosebud, which is predominantly under the age of 21, when fixing the
district boundaries. He asserted that the lines were drawn based on data
that show only 52 percent of the population could vote in some of the
counties and that the population of voting-age residents was considered and
not the overall population.

When district reapportionment was accomplished in past census years there
was no accurate count of population along racial lines. Lack of data became
the excuse for not creating proportional districts to allow American
Indians, the most populous minority group in South Dakota, a chance to have
a district that allowed the election of preferred candidates. The 2000
census asked people to identify themselves along racial lines.

In 1973 a task force was established to determine what could be
accomplished by redrawing district lines to give American Indians fair
representation in the legislature. The state population is 10 percent
American Indian and in the early 1970s no legislator came from Indian
country.

Today, there are four American Indian state legislators, three from one
district, District 27, which includes the Rosebud and Pine Ridge
reservations.

The American Civil Liberties Union, who filed the original complaint
against the state for violating the Voting Rights Act, notified the state
on Oct. 22 that some voter registration cards were illegally rejected in
some of the counties that make up Districts 26 and 27.

Bryan Sells, attorney for the Voter Rights Project of the ACLU, said the
state's voter registration card contains three areas where age is verified
and citizenship is verified in two places. Checkboxes on some cards were
not filled out, causing them to be rejected, Sells said.

Sells said a signature on the bottom of the card also asked the registrant
to verify age and citizenship and that was legally sufficient, according to
federal law.

The letter to Long and Nelson said rejecting the cards threatened to
disenfranchise hundreds if not thousands of potential voters.

The Help America Vote Act required the state to put the checkbox questions
on the ballot. It also requires the auditor offer the applicant a chance to
complete the form if the checkbox is not filled in.

In the case the applicant cannot be reached, the signature verifying age
and citizenship constitutes a legal registration.

Nelson said the auditors were notified to accept those registration cards.
Any card that was originally rejected was to be authorized. Nelson said his
office checked the federal law and the state will comply. He also said that
the estimate of thousands of people disenfranchised was overstated.