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Indian country benefits from voting act

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WASHINGTON -- Indian country has been protected by Section 5 of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965, but that could change in 2007 if the section is not
renewed before the expiration date.

Section 5, added to the VRA in 1975 to prevent some Southern states from
gerrymandering or otherwise diluting the black voting bloc, covered
American Indians as well (they were listed as a racial group protected by
civil rights laws). One of the VRA's most controversial elements, the
amendment requires certain states and counties to obtain pre-clearance from
the U.S. Department of Justice before a government body can alter any
voting policy or redistricting plan. The states subjected to the law want
it to expire.

The state of Arizona, part of New Mexico and two counties in South Dakota
-- all areas with concentrated American Indian populations -- are listed
under Section 5.

In recent years, nationwide Get Out the Vote campaigns have been held in
Indian country, and documented successes are the result. American Indian
voters are credited with reelecting Sen. Tim Johnson in the 2000 general
election.

Accusations of ballot stuffing and registration fraud were exchanged by
both political parties. During the next legislative session, the
Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a photo identification
requirement over the objections of Indian country. No lawsuit was filed.

In South Dakota's case, former Gov. Bill Janklow opposed the 1975
amendments to the VRA, especially Section 5. That section applied to South
Dakota specifically because of Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation
and Todd County on the Rosebud Reservation. Five other counties were also
included in the bilingual election requirements.

Janklow referred to the amendments as an "absurdity" and advised the
secretary of state to not comply with the new law. As a consequence, more
than 300 changes have occurred to the voting policy in the state without
the opportunity for pre-clearance.

South Dakota was found to be in violation of the VRA by a federal court for
packing an electoral district with American Indian voters, which prevented
another district from achieving a majority American Indian voting
population, plaintiffs in the court case argued.

The state was also found to be in violation of Section 5 by not seeking
pre-clearance from the Justice Department for a bill that would allow
counties to redistrict with the governor's permission in years not covered
by the constitution.

Blaine County, Mont. was found to be in violation of Section 2 of the VRA
by changing the county to an at-large district. A federal court of appeals
ruled the voting system prevented American Indians from participating in
the political process.

After the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, American Indians
were prevented from voting until the 1940s in South Dakota.

In the early 1980s Arizona tried to create an all-American Indian-populated
county. Big Horn County in Wyoming was found guilty of infringing on
American Indian voters' rights to register and vote, thereby preventing
them from electing their preferred candidates.

Charles Mix County, S.D., found itself in federal court over redistricting
plans that would prevent members of the Yankton Reservation, which covers
the southern portion of the county, from electing a candidate of preference
or from electing an American Indian to any county office. The state is now
in violation of Section 5 for not seeking pre-clearance for the
legislation.

Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota have all been subjects of
lawsuits alleging violations of the VRA. School districts and local
governments are not exempt from Section 5 or any other provision of the
VRA, and lawsuits have been filed against school districts that have high
populations of American Indian students, but no American Indians on the
governing boards.