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South Dakota again under ACLU watch

PIERRE, S.D. - A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on March 20 claiming that the one-person-one-vote rule of the 14th Amendment is being violated and that districts established many years ago were never changed to allow the American Indian population to participate in the political and governmental process.

In Buffalo County, S.D., predominantly American Indian in population, county government is controlled by non-Indians because of district disproportion that is against this Amendment, the American Civil Liberty Union argues. A majority of the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation is in Buffalo County and non-Indians that represent only 17 percent of the county population control the three member county commission.

The plaintiffs, Crystal Kirkie, Darla Fallis and Christine Obago are all members of the tribe. Kirkie is the tribal secretary and a member of the tribal council. Fallis is the tribal treasurer and also on the council and Obago is the finance officer of the tribe.

"If the districts were to be redrawn the county commission could be under the control of the American Indian population," said Bryan Sells, attorney for the ACLU.

The county commission is required to review the district population every two years, but in February of 2002 the commissioners decided that the districts were fine the way they were drawn.

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

Sells said anyone could have looked at the districts and determined there would be a problem.

The present districts were established prior to 1990, and even farther back than anyone can remember, Sells said.

The total population of Buffalo County is 2,032 of which 1,692 are American Indian, according to the 2000 Census. That's 83 percent of the population.

District one has 101 people, none are American Indian; district two has a population of 353 and 199 or 56 percent are American Indian and district three has a population of 1,578, of which 94 percent or 1,493 are American Indian. Using the Census figures the size of each district in Buffalo County should be 677 people.

Population disparity is measured by percentages of deviation from an equitable population base; a deviation, by law, of more than 10 percent is illegal. The deviation in Buffalo County is 218 percent or 20 times that which is permitted.

"This is the most glaring example of political apartheid that I have seen anywhere in the United States," Sells said.

The two smallest districts control the county with non-Indian commissioners as the majority on the commission. District two has a few American Indian voters, but the American Indian candidates are usually defeated because of the high margin of non-Indian voters that vote in a bloc.

District one, has no American Indian voters so is controlled by the non-Indian population. Thus, the most populated district is placed in the minority by virtue of discriminatory acts of districting, the lawsuit claims.

What makes the case even more disturbing is the fact that the American Indians in Buffalo County do not have control of economic development or any way to include the reservation in the county's future plans. The county, according to the 2000 census is the poorest in the nation. Unemployment on the Crow Creek Reservation is near 80 percent.

Outside of the federal and tribal government, a school district and a small casino and a few small businesses there is little employment opportunities for the Crow Creek Tribal members. Those businesses and government entities cannot fill the demand for work, tribal officials say.

Another argument in favor of redistricting, the plaintiffs argue, is that the county is seriously racially polarized when it comes to education, housing, employment and health services, which places the tribal members in a lower socioeconomic status. Then the governmental control of the county by the minority of non-Indian voters continues the racial disparity and contributes to a growing racial bias.

"The existing commission districts in Buffalo County, S.D., were enacted and are being maintained with the discriminatory purpose of denying or abridging the right of Native Americans to vote on account of race or color in violation of rights guaranteed to the plaintiffs by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution," the court documents state.

Sells said that he had contact with the attorneys for Buffalo County, but could not elaborate on their phone conversations because of the lawsuit. There was no comment from the county attorneys.

The ACLU has four live lawsuits in the state of South Dakota; two against the state, one against the town of Martin and the new one against Buffalo County. A case against the school district of Wagner was settled and a suit against the state that claimed the state passed and implemented voting legislation without the approval of the U.S. Justice Department was settled. The state is required by law to pass all voter legislation through the U.S. Department of Justice.