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Racial tones may affect South Dakota county elections

LAKE ANDES, S.D. – This coming November election in South Dakota will be racially charged, claims an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Charles Mix County, home to the Yankton Sioux Tribe, could be the site of the racial trouble. The county and the state have been beleaguered by lawsuits over the past two years for violations of the Voting Rights Act, and now the county will put a measure on the November ballot to give county residents the say in adding two new districts.

The county has been governed by three commissioners since the beginning of its origin, but now entering the stage is another element that has never been present before: an American Indian commissioner will be seated to govern the county.

U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol approved a redistricting plan that would give one district a majority of American Indian residents. He determined that districts in the county previously were diluted, which prevented American Indians from ever electing a preferred candidate to county office.

Sharon Drapeau, Yankton Sioux, was victorious in the June primary and will not have opposition on the November ballot.

“This [the additional two districts] will dilute my voice or whatever power I might have. This county is used to the way things were and don’t want Indians to have an opinion or to participate,” Drapeau said.

“They can’t believe someone is willing to come along with ideas. Our ideas are just as valid. We are all doing work for the common good,” Drapeau said.

Opponents of the petition claim that the petition was started after it was clear Drapeau would be the winner. She said she was not expected to win the primary. Drapeau is a resident of a district that now has a majority American Indian population.

“In our view, what is going on is they want to diminish the influence that an Indian commissioner has by making her one out of five instead of one out of three,” said Bryan Sells, ACLU voting rights attorney.

“If anyone says otherwise, they are a liar if they say this has nothing to do with race,” he said.

Petition circulators argue that the process was started before the June primary elections and that the first signatures were gathered in March, only to have that petition thrown out because of improper wording, Raymond Westendorf, county sheriff, told The Associated Press. Westendorf circulated petitions, and Yankton tribal members claim the petitions started in the law enforcement office.

Sara Frankenstein, attorney representing Charles Mix County, claimed in court documents that the petition was started before the primary election and stated that it was untrue that the petition drive began in response to Drapeau’s victory.

“The sheriff circulated the petition while in uniform; he could have influenced the signatures,” Drapeau said. Westendorf did not return phone calls.

Sells said his office has received complaints that some people were intimidated into signing the petition.

Sells presented petitions to Piersol that had been circulated by John Fuerst, a deputy sheriff.

Drapeau said that to an American Indian, a police officer in uniform is a very intimidating figure. A local newspaper, the Wagner Post, printed a front-page picture of Westendorf in uniform, handing a petition to a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

One argument the petition proponents cite for a change is that most counties in the region have five-member commissions. Charles Mix County has always been governed by three commissioners. The county is large, mostly elongated with the southernmost border abutting Nebraska. Other counties in South Dakota are also governed by three commissioners.

“I don’t know how many people have come and tried to heal this county,” Drapeau said.

She said the problem is with the people and families who have lived in the county for generations, not the new people moving in.

“The old guard doesn’t know their unwellness,” she said. “Generations have come and gone.”

The issue is still in court. The ACLU has asked Piersol since fall 2005 for an order of relief under Sections 3a and 3c of the VRA. If Section 3c were to be approved it would not allow the petition to go forward.

“Without Section 3c relief, if the voters adopted the referendum and the new plan is unsatisfactory to us we would have to sue all over again,” Sells said.

Section 3c applies to jurisdictions that are not included under Section 5 of the voting rights act that requires approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for any voting changes to prevent discrimination. Only two counties in South Dakota, Shannon and Todd, require that approval. Those two counties are on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, respectively.

A plan passed by the state Legislature that allowed any county to redistrict at any time with the approval of the state was challenged in court under Section 5 of the VRA. The bill was passed specifically to give Charles Mix County a chance to redistrict to avoid litigation.

Section 3a requires a judge to authorize the appointment of federal election monitors, which, according to Sells, is automatic in cases like the Charles Mix County case.

The federal court also ordered the state to pay for court and attorney’s fees to the ACLU and local lead attorneys in an amount that exceeds $450,000.