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South Dakota redistricting draws lawsuit

PIERRE, S.D. ? A lawsuit intended to stop redistricting plans by the South Dakota legislature was filed in federal court here by the ACLU on behalf of six Lakota tribal members.

The lawsuit claims the state did not get proper clearance from the Justice Department Voting Rights division before it approved the redistricting bill that was signed into law by Gov. William Janklow. The plan went into affect on Jan. 1, 2002.

Federal approval is required by law in cases where discrimination has occurred before, the complaint states. At question are Shannon and Todd counties, which make up District 27, home to the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes.

District 27 has an American Indian population of 90 percent. Neighboring District 26 is predominantly non-Indian. American Indians make up 30 percent of the total population and 23 percent of the eligible voter population.

District 26 includes portions of counties that are adjacent to the reservations. District 27 boundaries include Shannon, Todd and a portion of Jackson and Bennett counties, the reservation counties. By changing the district boundaries a more equitable population balance would be achieved, and it would give the American Indian voting population a better chance of selecting another candidate for state office, the plaintiffs claim.

The lawsuit argues that the legislature "packed" District 27 with American Indian voters, which deprives District 26 Indian voters of an opportunity to participate in the political process or elect any American Indian legislators.

District 27 now has one state senator and one representative who are Lakota. Proper redistricting would offer American Indian candidates an opportunity to be elected in District 26, said the suit.

Bryan Sells, lead attorney for the ACLU's Voting Rights division said the requirement for federal approval is clear in this case because Shannon and Todd counties fall under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Legislative redistricting committee knew that District 27 would require federal approval. It attempted to file the plan with the Justice Department but the filing was rejected because the redistricting plan had not been passed into law at the time, the court documents state.

The focus of the lawsuit is the fact that approval by the Justice Department had not occurred before the plan had been passed and signed into law. State legal experts claim that is not necessary.

The lawsuit also claims that the redistricting deprives American Indians of the right to vote because of race.

The complaint states that changes in population and demographics require pre-clearance and change in the boundaries of the district. In 1991, 87 percent of the overall population in District 27 and 82 percent of the voting-age population was American Indian. Those figures made the district underpopulated by 4.2 percent, the most underpopulated in the state, said the complaint.

But the 2000 census shows that 90 percent of the overall population and 86 percent of the voting age population are American Indian. This makes the district overpopulated by 4 percent and therefore a candidate for district boundary changes, the plaintiffs claim.

"Candidates preferred by Native Americans in District 26 are usually defeated by the white majority voting as a bloc. Historically, Native American residents of Districts 26 and 27 and South Dakota have been subject to private as well as official discrimination on the basis of race, tribal, and language minority status, including discrimination in attempting to exercise their right of franchise and to participate equally with other residents in the political processes," the court documents state.

"Native American residents of Districts 26 and 27 and South Dakota bear the effects of discrimination on the basis of race and tribal status in education, housing, employment, and health services which have resulted in a lower socio-economic status

which hinders their ability to participate effectively in the political process."

The complaint states that because of the at-large method of voting, American Indian candidates were discouraged from running for office. The impact of poverty and other socio-economic factors puts the American Indian bloc at a disadvantage, the court documents state.

District 28, which includes a portion of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, was previously broken up into two districts. The State Supreme Court upheld that separation. Tom Van Norman, Lakota, represents people from the Cheyenne River Reservation in that district. Sells said he was encouraged by the fact the legislature kept the boundaries of District 28.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Alfred Bone Shirt and Belva Black Lance, Rosebud; Bonni High Bull and Germaine Moves Camp, Pine Ridge.